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If her name rings a bell at all, Mary Wesley, who died aged 90 in 2002, is remembered for two things: publishing the first of ten successful novels at the age of 70, and knowing a surprising amount, for a ladylike senior citizen, about sex. Even her greatest fans, though, might wonder if she rates a serious, full-length biography, and why a well-regarded writer and journalist like Patrick Marnham, who has previously produced books on Simenon, Diego Rivera and Jean Moulin, should choose her as a subject. All such carping questions can be put aside immediately. This biography is pure pleasure, a riveting, hilarious tragicomedy of manners.
Mary Wesley was born Mary Farmar, and her forebears were soldiers from the Anglo-Irish gentry. Her pen name reflects her ancestry: her great-great-great-grandfather, the older brother of the first Duke of Wellington, became Governor General of India and changed his name from Wesley to Wellesley. As a child she was spirited and rebellious and felt less loved than her more biddable brother and sister; nicknamed ‘Wild Mary’, when she asked why her governesses, 16 of them, never stayed long she was told, ‘None of them liked you, darling.’ Families, to her, were dangerous places.
When she grew up, she became even wilder, despite being presented at court three times before three monarchs (George V, Edward VIII and George VI). Her first lovers were suitable young men from good schools and good regiments; ‘God, when I think of the time I’ve wasted going to bed with old Etonians’, she remarked later. But during the 1930s her subversive nature and the mood of the times drew her towards kindred spirits, like the upper-class communists John Platts Mills and Lewis Clive: she worked in a canteen for the unemployed, and took a course in International Relations at the LSE. She also took up with a group of clever, attractive young foreigners exiled from Europe by the rise of Nazism, and had an affair with an Armenian communist called Boris Melikoff, who, writes Marnham in a characteristic aside, ‘had found it hard to take British Society seriously since the day he found his first wife in bed with his mother — a lady who eventually became editor of Paris Vogue’. Increasingly, she was drawn to brilliant, difficult outsiders.
But when she married, in 1937, she played safe. Her husband was a rich young peer (Eton and Christ Church), Carol Swinfen, whose father had been Master of the Rolls and bought his peerage from Lloyd George. Her family was much relieved, but Mary always knew that he was ‘a very nice man she should never have married’. There were compensations: she enjoyed having her own house, a cook, a maid, a black pug puppy, a kitten and the keys to the Lagonda. And despite, it emerged later, only having sex eight times in two years, in 1939 their son Roger was born.
And then came the war. As Marnham says, this was the key period in Mary’s life and the source of her best fiction; but at the time ‘there was no conscious gathering of material, there was just chaos, exhilaration and loss’. She was already bored with her husband, and the marriage was effectively over. In London, she found a hush-hush job decoding German radio signals for MI5; when asked to move to Bletchley she declined, on the grounds that it would be ‘not at all handy for the Ritz’. However, she remained useful to MI5 for some time, although even the skilful Marnham has not been able to establish exactly what she did for them.
There were many more affairs; ‘war,’ she once said, ‘is very erotic.’ When it all became too much, she took refuge at Boskenna, a large house in Cornwall owned by a splendidly eccentric and unusually tolerant colonel with a taste for chorus girls, father of Mary’s best friend Betty. During the war, Boskenna was awash with soldiers on leave, desperate for love. There Mary took up with the Ziegler brothers, exceptionally gifted and attractive Austrian-born Czechs of Jewish descent. Heinz Ziegler, who was working at the Foreign Office for Robert Vansittart, the leading pre-war anti-appeaser, was the father of her second son, Toby, born in 1941. Ziegler joined the RAF and was killed in 1944; Carol Swinfen always treated Toby as his own.
Towards the end of the war Mary Wesley, lunching at the Ritz, met her second husband and the love of her life. Eric Siepmann was of German descent, handsome, talented and unstable; he was also married to Phyllis, an alarmingly deranged woman who spread scandal about Mary (much of it true) and wrote hundreds of poisonous letters to her family and to Siepmann’s employers. Several promising jobs were lost as a result; he continued to work as a freelance journalist, wrote plays and novels that never quite took off and drank too much. Siepmann brought Mary great happiness and great trouble, but at least, as she said, she was never bored. Their son William was born in 1953.
Although Mary had begun to plan a novel in 1947, her life with Siepmann was too full of dramas and constant moves from house to house, mostly in the West Country, to allow her to write. Her relations with her increasingly disapproving brother and sister went from bad to worse, especially as they took Carol Swinfen’s side over the divorce; her sister Susan married a man called Scammell, who became the family financial and legal adviser. As Mary saw it, and as Marnham demonstrates, the sinister Scammell began to undermine Mary’s relationship with her oldest son Roger. After Eric Siepmann’s death in 1970, when Mary was distraught with grief and guilt — she had promised to let him die when the time came, and kept her promise — she told Roger about Toby’s parentage. This admission led to a long and painful family crisis, when after Swinfen’s death in 1977 Roger, by now under Scammell’s thumb, tried to disinherit his younger brother.
It appeared, during the 1970s, that Mary’s life was wrecked. She was poor, lonely, ill and estranged from her family; she had begun to write in earnest, but apart from two children’s books none of her work could find a publisher. Then, in 1982, Jumping the Queue, the novel which begins with a widow deciding to drown herself, was taken by Macmillan and her sudden, extraordinary late flowering as a writer began.
Towards the end of her life, she made several attempts to write an autobiography, but decided to co-operate with Marnham instead. She made the right decision; Marnham has disentangled truth from rumour, clarified the many connections between Wild Mary’s rackety life and Mary Wesley’s fiction, and produced a generous, unsentimental and intelligent portrait of a woman’s life and times.