Mary Wesley makes me feel like she knows a little bit more about this story than she’s letting on. From the moment I started The Camomile Lawn, I felt like at least some part of it must be autobiographical. I was also trying to figure out how I missed this one — first published in 1984, with a miniseries in 1992. I could understand missing the publication, since I was still in school, but the miniseries? In the 90s, we lived for them. Well, it may have slipped past me once, but this time, I was paying attention.
Mary Wesley wrote this book when she was 70 years old. According to Wikipedia, She began her writing career when her second husband’s death left her nearly impoverished. I have two favorite parts of her Wikipedia bio, which are related. The first is this. “As a child, she had 16 governesses. When she asked her mother why they kept on leaving, she was reportedly told, “Because none of them like you, darling.” It goes on to say she had a complicated relationship with her family – to which I would add a thoughtful, “duh!” It is implied, then, that it may have been because, “She had a sharp tongue.” After she published this book, more trouble with her family followed, which really comes as no surprise, given the general course of the story. Apparently, she told too many family secrets.
So, this is not your typical World War II story. It is the story of what happened while all those other stories you’ve read took place. The story of what happened to the people left behind, with occasional cameos from the people sent away to fight. The cast of characters is introduced as war is imminent, but most refuse to believe it. They have come together for their annual summer holidays, a gathering of an odd assortment of cousins and friends to their family’s house in Cornwall, England. They do not realize until they gather on the camomile lawn, that they are each on the brink of a new and very different life. But for many of them, the war brings a kind of freedom they have never experienced, including a sexual “live for today because tomorrow you will die” kind of fervor.
I will admit my bias, because I didn’t think the average 70-year-old could have written such a wild story if she hadn’t had some experience of it herself; there are plot lines in this story you just couldn’t make up. I read somewhere that Mary Wesley’s stories are like Jane Austen, with sex, which seems apt. But it is also so much more than that. There is nothing gratuitous here, and you understand that everyone, at some level, is trying to maintain the status quo as things are literally falling down all around them. The idea of the freedom everyone experienced during the war reminded me of In the Garden of Beasts. Wesley says, “We had been brought up so repressed. War freed us.” I feel like she is sharing a vital truth here, one that is not expressed in very many war-themed books.
After reading this story, I am dying to read her biography, Wild Mary. You know it’s going to be good when permission is only granted for the release after her death. But, I believe her son makes the best case for reading it. According to Wikipedia, after he finished reading it, he was so amazed at how much he didn’t know about his mother, that he didn’t speak to anyone for a week. Now that’s a book I need to read!