The Camomile Lawn

In which I review The Camomile Lawn, Mary Wesley’s bestselling 1984 novel about five cousins living between London and Cornwall during World War II. 

What it’s about: England, the 1930s. Five cousins from an upper middle-class family – Spanish Civil War veteran Oliver, the beautiful Calypso, twins Polly and Walter, and ten-year old Sophy – holiday with their uncle Richard and aunt Helena at their home in Cornwall which has a camomile lawn overlooking the sea. As war is declared, the family disperses. Oliver joins the Army, Walter joins the Navy, Calypso and Polly move to London to work for intelligence services, and Sophy is sent to boarding school. Helena leaves Richard and moves to London with her lover, the violinist Max Erstweiler, while Max’s wife Monika stays in Cornwall with Richard. Calypso marries a wealthy politician and pursues a number of affairs, including Walter and Max, while Polly takes childhood friends the Floyer twins to bed. Sophy confesses to Walter that she was sexually abused as a child, but her secret dies with him when he is killed a few weeks later. She moves to London to live with Calypso, who gives birth to a baby during an air raid. The remaining family return to Cornwall for Richard’s funeral. An extended coda in the present day reunites the characters, this time at Max’s funeral. Max’s adult son Pauli inherits the house, announcing plans to convert it into a luxury hotel and bulldoze the camomile lawn. Helena deduces that Sophy killed her childhood abuser, while Oliver persuades Sophy to become his lover. “Be careful what you wish for,” she replies, “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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