The Camomile Lawn

In which I review The Camomile Lawn, Mary Wesley’s bestselling 1984 novel about five cousins holidaying at their aunt’s house in Cornwall before the outbreak of World War II, which has a liberating effect on their lives.

What it’s about: England, the 1930s-1940s. Four cousins from an upper middle-class family – Oliver, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the beautiful Calypso and twins Polly and Walter – holiday at their uncle Richard’s house near Penzance in the summer of 1939. Richard, a World War I veteran with an artificial leg, infuriates his wife Helena, a prickly and unmaternal woman who unwillingly takes care of Richard’s orphaned niece Sophy. Oliver unsuccessfully tries to seduce Calypso, who claims she is incapable of love and vows to marry a wealthy man. Meanwhile, Sophy secretly longs for Oliver and Polly enjoys the attentions of neighbouring twins David and Paul Floyer. Oliver and the others plan the “Terror Run” around the cliff path by moonlight. On the night of the game, Helena invites Max and Monika Erstweiler to dinner, Austrian Jewish refugees who have an adult son in a concentration camp. Sophy begs to participate in the Terror Run but returns distressed, saying she has seen a “pink snake”. That same night, war is declared, and the local coastguard goes missing. Helena, realising she must escape Richard, drives through the night with Oliver to London.

Following the outbreak of war, the family disperses. Oliver joins the Army, while Walter joins the Navy and the Floyer twins go into the Air Force. Calypso and Polly move to London and work for intelligence services, and Calypso marries Hector Grant, a wealthy aristocrat and politician twice her age. Helena sends Sophy to boarding school and stays in London while considering leaving Richard. The Erstweilers are interned on the Isle of Man, and Richard (who had previously expressed pro-Nazi sentiments) leads a campaign for their release. Helena invites the Erstweilers to live in the Cornwall house. Max resumes his career as a concert violinist, and he and Helena become lovers. Polly and Walter’s parents are unexpectedly killed by a bomb during an air raid. Helena buys two flats in London so she can live with Max, while Monika continues to take care of Richard in Cornwall, aware of the affair and seemingly happy with the arrangement.

The cousins lives continue to overlap in London. Calypso pursues a number of affairs while continuing to sleep with Hector. After several unsuccessful attempts, she and Oliver have a brief unsatisfactory night together. The group become friends with Tony Wood, a bisexual fireman who sleeps with Calypso and Polly and becomes great friends with Helena. Richard falls in with pneumonia, drawing the others back to Cornwall. Helena feels both relieved and annoyed by Monika replacing her. Sophy unsuccessfully tries to tell Oliver that she was sexually molested by the coastguard during the Terror Run and pushed him over the cliffs to his death. Richard encourages Calypso to seduce a Territorial Army officer, Brian Portmadoc, in the hope that an anti-aircraft gun will be moved off the camomile lawn. Back in London, Calypso and Brian become lovers, and realises that she is pregnant (to Hector). Max, who has also been her lover, guesses that she is pregnant and takes her to a Marx Brothers to cheer her up.

Sophy eventually tells Walter, but he is killed a few weeks later before he can tell Polly and the others. Calypso discovers that Polly in bed with both the Floyer twins. A bored Richard comes to London, infuriating Helena who wants to be alone with Max. Sophy confides in Calypso that Richard put his hands up her dress when she was a child. When confronted by Calypso, Richard insists that no harm was done, and that he doesn’t mind Monika’s pubic or armpit hair, inferring that they have become lovers.

Polly, grieving for Walter and confused about her relationship with the twins, takes a holiday in Dartmoor and confides in a kindly doctor who encourages her to continue seeing them both. Monika attempts suicide in despair over her son and after being insulted by a racist neighbour. Sophy escapes school and goes to live with Calypso, almost losing her virginity to Tony (though we learn later that she had her first sexual experience with Max). Calypso gives birth to her baby during an air raid, and sends the child to Scotland to be looked after by an old flame of Hector’s. Richard falls seriously ill and the family return to Cornwall. Before he dies, he asks Sophy to ensure he is buried with his dog.

The action moves into the present day, as the now 90 year-old Helena, Calypso (who has had a stroke), Polly and their children return to Cornwall for Max’s funeral. The Erstweiler’s adult son Pauli inherits the house from Max (who had previously bought it from Helena) and announces plans to convert it into a luxury hotel, replacing the camomile lawn with a terraced garden. Despite her grief, Helena correctly guesses that Sophy killed the coastguard. Oliver, who is now a successful novelist, makes a surprise appearance at the funeral. He persuades Sophy that they should finally become lovers, to which she replies “Be careful what you wish for, for it will surely come true.”

Why it’s a classic: Wesley was 71 when she published her first novel Jumping the Queue, a semi-autobiographical tale about an older woman devastated by the death of her lover who organises a suicidal picnic. The book confounded and delighted audiences with its pitch black humour, and unsentimental take on death, and launched Wesley as the most unlikely new voice in British publishing. Like her near contemporary Anita Brookner, Wesley was an extraordinarily prolific writer, publishing nearly one book every year or two until 1997. When asked why she stopped writing at the age of 84, her response was as crisp and acerbic as her characters: “If you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it.”

The Camomile Lawn, published just a year after Jumping the Queue, was critically acclaimed and an unexpected commercial success. In many ways, it slotted neatly into the nostalgia-obsessed Zeitgeist of the Thatcherite 1980s, delivering the kind of Tory comfort food that’s long been a staple of English literature: upper middle-class characters with cut-glass accents, moving nonchalantly between country houses, London apartments and private members’ clubs and outsourcing most of the requirements of domestic life to servants. Though the dreaded phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” is never uttered, the characters of The Camomile Lawn embodied a much-cherished myth about English fortitude and bravery during World War II and the Blitz, typified in films and TV series of the period, including Hope and Glory, Fortunes of War and Tenko.

Much of Wesley’s popularity sprung from her fondness for four-letter expletives and her frank descriptions of sex, defying public expectations about what authors of her age, gender and class could think and say. In The Camomile Lawn, the sexual desires and unconventional love life of middle-aged Aunt Helena are given as much attention as those of the younger and more conventionally desirable Calypso. Wesley’s readers were astonished to learn, as Oliver does when driving Helena to Max’s funeral, that older women think about and desire sex, and may even upend their lives to pursue sexual satisfaction. Helena and Calypso were, in some ways, Wesley’s fictional alter egos – Wesley married a wealthy older aristocrat in 1937 and produced two sons, then divorced him in 1945 and lived with her married lover Eric Siepmann for many years before they were able to remarry.

Wesley’s Bohemian past and cheerfully amoral characters again seemed totally at odds with her age and class, but slotted neatly into the other great publishing trend of the 1980s: the Jackie Collins/Shirley Conran bonkbuster, in which ambitious women shagged for Britain in Mercedes and private jets, while amassing and discarding husbands, children and jewellery. Wesley’s novels came to represent the classier end of this genre, her work located somewhere between the English comic novel tradition of Nancy Mitford and the ferocious energy of the bonkbusters, celebrating women who were fearlessly “unladylike” and mostly unashamed of their “bad behaviour”.

The Camomile Lawn was adapted into a television series for Channel 4 in 1992, adapted by Ken Taylor and directed by Sir Peter Hall, starring The Good Life alumni Felicity Kendal as Helena and Paul Eddington as Richard, mother-and-daughter duo Jennifer Ehle and Rosemary Harris as the younger and older Calypso, and Hall’s daughter Rebecca and Claire Bloom as the younger and older Sophy. The series became notorious due to Ehle’s full-frontal nude scenes, and perhaps unsurprisingly achieved record viewing figures, becoming Channel 4’s biggest hit until the series Humans in 2015. It’s difficult in our sexually saturated modern world to imagine how risque this was for British television in the early 1990s. In an intriguing postscript, Ehle commented some years later that she felt uncomfortable with the nudity and the salacious attention it received, and never appeared naked onscreen again, winning more respectable praise a few years later as the fully-clothed Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet, but not of camomile – perhaps a bunch of off-season violets that Helena places on Max’s coffin.

Midway through reading The Camomile Lawn, I stopped myself, wondering why I was so engrossed in a book that appeared to have so many flaws. None of the characters are particularly likeable, their stories move in and out of focus haphazardly, and there are too many of them on the page. (Walter and Polly in particular feel under-developed and could easily have been excised). Only Helena and Calypso are given any real attention, and even then, their thoughts and feelings are reported to us from a chilly distance. There are pages of dialogue that read like tennis matches, one line zinging after the other, some of it quite amusing but none of it sounds remotely real. “You bloody bitch. I shall fuck you on the floor“, Oliver says at one point, to which Calypso replies “Not in this coat you won’t. Hector said if I bought mink I must make it last“. Elsewhere, there are passages of workmanlike banality: “I’ve hardly seen you since I married“, Calypso says, to which Polly replies “What with your marriage and my job it’s not easy“).

The novel also doesn’t live up to its promise as a social document of life during WWII. The Cornish landscape is rendered adequately if not memorably, and the much-mentioned camomile lawn never quite becomes the Proustian symbol of memory and feeling that Wesley wants it to be. Her portrait of London is also fuzzy and indistinct. Apart from one scene where Oliver and Sophy walk around St Paul’s Cathedral in a blackout, and the odd reference to bus routes from Harrods, the novel could be set anywhere, and pales by comparison with the rich atmospheric writing of Elizabeth Bowen and Sarah Waters. Wesley seems more comfortable putting her characters in claustrophobic indoor spaces: travelling on cramped smoked-filled trains, poking about in sparsely furnished North London flats, or shivering in Arctic-temperature churches, all fit locations for their empty frost-bitten hearts.

So what, then, made me want to keep reading? The answer is, I think, the sheer energy and vitality of the storytelling, the bracing lack of sentimentality in the characters, and Wesley’s warts-and-all portrayal of them. Stories involving Brits living through wartime so often tend to emphasise the characters’ bravery and heroism. Wesley’s characters are refreshing partly because their heroism exists alongside their less exalted virtues: their selfishness, their jealousies, their wilful blindness to uncomfortable facts and their Olympian abilities to lie to each other and harbour dirty little secrets.

Rather than make a big deal of the many revelations about who slept with whom and when, Wesley emulates her characters’ evasion, drip-feeding information throughout the book and dropping in key plot points casually at the end of sentences. Even the most romantic scenario, such as Helena and Max becoming lovers, is given a searing corrective with some plain British common sense: “In her mind she saw herself and Max making love under a blue sky surrounded by golden daffodils, ecstasy in the midst of war. She ignored the truth, which was that the daffodil season had long been over, the leaves withered to a dull straw colour, that there were weeds among the bulbs and that while slipping off her knickers she had been stung by nettles.” Meanwhile, Walter’s death is tossed aside with extraordinary cruelty: drowning in the North Atlantic, “[h]e opened his mouth to shout for Polly and drowned that much quicker.”

Wesley’s insistence on telling the plain unvarnished truth occurs again and again, very often to the detriment of her readers’ empathy for the characters. Richard’s casual anti-Semitism is everywhere (though he redeems himself by saving the Erstweilers from internment) and there are extended and deeply unpleasant references to Sophy’s “Asiatic” features, with an attendant horror that she may have “Indo-Chinese” parentage. At the funeral, Helena thinks (but doesn’t say out loud) that Pauli’s plans to dig up the camomile lawn makes her wish “he had died in his concentration camp, never come back, been made into a lampshade.”

Statements like that, even in fiction, can strip the paint off the walls, and had Wesley been writing now, I suspect she’d had been shot down in flames for legitimising racism. Personally, I admire Wesley’s courage in “telling it like it was”, and portraying characters who think and feel truly awful things, especially in the face of a world war. “Atrocities are jokes, you can’t survive otherwise,” Oliver explains earlier on, giving some insight into the gallows humour of the inter-war generation, and the need to keep things light, brittle and funny. I don’t think Wesley is excusing anyone’s bad behaviour as much as she presents it without commentary or critique, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

This bluntness also allows for the kind of hard-won wisdom that we’re more used to seeing in Vera Brittain or Terence Rattigan. At the funeral, Sophy marvels that the Floyers “had never criticized or interfered with their sons and Polly. Their acceptance of an unusual situation had silenced waspish tongues as effectively as foam suffocates fire.” To an extent, the entire book is a demonstration of how the 20th century’s most unusual situation provoked morally torpid, lazily privileged people into action, and forced them to confront their desires, even those that made them unattractive to themselves and others.

There’s also something refreshing about the freedom Wesley allows her female characters, imbuing them with a bold amorality that’s normally reserved for men. Calypso cheerfully sleeps with nearly every man in the book and is an uninterested mother, but isn’t punished or required to feel guilt-ridden; instead she’s allowed to realise, slowly and over time, that she genuinely loves her husband. And Helena is one of the most fascinating characters of modern British fiction: a woman who discovers love, passion and orgasms in advanced middle-age, which only serves to make her more selfish, jealous and suspicious of the happiness of others.

Reviewing Wesley’s novel Second Fiddle in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that the ”bright comic surface” of her books “belies a dark subtext of sin, incest, murder and betrayal,” in which ”cuckoldry and sexual gamesmanship thrive… and a chilly air of malice (or at the very least manipulation)… hovers over her characters.” It’s this chilly air that gives The Camomile Lawn its edge and compulsive readability, distinguishing it from the many other lavender-scented examples of its genre.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever need to read The Camomile Lawn again or dive into any more of Wesley’s oeuvre, but I’m pleased I went on the Terror Run with Sophy, Calypso, Oliver and the rest, and rolled my eyes along with Helena as Richard once again droned on about his wooden leg. It’s also tremendously inspiring to note Wesley’s literary success at an age when most people would have consigned her to a garden centre, proving it’s never too late to write a bestselling dirty book.

Quotable Quote: “Were it not for Hitler I should never have met Max, were it not for the war Hector would not have decided to marry again. The Jews may be enslaved, thought Helena, powdering her nose, but I am free of boring boring Richard. If the telegraph boy had not brought me the telegram to say Anthony [Helena’s first husband] was killed, what sort of woman would I have become?”

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