This week’s BotW is another case of “why on earth haven’t I read this before”. I have no idea why I hadn’t got around to the Camomile Lawn before. All I can think is that the TV version had Jennifer Ehle in it and that my mum may have steered me away from it in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice because I was 11 and if the TV series is anything like the book, it really wasn’t suitable for me at the time and I may have got it in my head that the book wasn’t worth it! Who knows. Anyway.
The Camomile Lawn tells the story of five cousins, who we meet at their Aunt-by-marriage’s house in Cornwall in the summer before the start of the Second World War. We follow them through the war and meet up with them again some years later as they reassemble for a funeral. There is beautiful, mercenary Calypso, outwardly conventional Polly, Oliver, Walter and much younger Sophy, who watches what the older ones are up to and wants to join in. And then there is Helena – married to a man injured in the last war and bored by her life, watching the kissing cousins as they set out into the future. As the war begins, life changes for all of them – new opportunities open up for the women and danger lurks for all of them – not just the obvious ones for the boys in the forces.
Mary Wesley was in her 70s when she wrote this – and it was only her second novel. She lived through the war that she is writing about and was a similar age to the characters when it happened. If she hadn’t been, perhaps there would be a temptation to say that the characters were having too much fun and too much sex considering that there was a war on. This reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but with the sex and antics turned up. Wesley doesn’t really bother with description – except for some of the details of the house in Cornwall – but she writes in a wonderful, understated way dropping bombshells in like they’re nothing so that you do a double take as you read it.
I’m off to read some more Mary Wesley and to try and get my hands on a DVD of the TV mini-series. You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Camomile Lawn fairly easily. I got mine from a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road. The Kindle and Kobo versions were £$.99 at time of writing and the paperback version was £5.99 on Amazon albeit in a slightly older cover than I saw in Foyles.