Behind the large house, the fragrant camomile lawn stretches down to the Cornish cliffs. Here, in the dizzying heat of August 1939, five cousins have gathered at their aunt’s house for their annual ritual of a holiday. For most of them, it is the last summer of their youth, with the heady exhilarations and freedoms of lost innocence, as well as the fears of the coming war around the corner.
Mary Wesley presents an extraordinarily vivid and lively picture of wartime London: the rationing, imaginatively circumvented, the fallen houses, the parties, the new-found comforts of sex, the desperate humour of survival.
Mary Wesley (1912-2002) became one of England’s most popular writers which is quite extraordinary considering that she only turned her hand to writing after the death of her second husband, publishing her first adult novel at the tender age of 71. Wesley’s novels have been described as “arsenic without the old lace,” depicting the hypocrisies and foibles of the English gentility in a humorous and ironic tone. Sadly, her siblings did not share her sense of humour describing her books as “filth,” but many readers have delighted in the way she overturned stereotypes about the elderly. As a young woman she was ahead of her time, as revealed in a biography titled “Wild Mary.” Sex features prominently in her novels, including incest, but not in an explicit way. Drawing on her own experiences, Wesley reportedly described her generation as flighty.
“We had been brought up so repressed. War freed us. We felt if we didn’t do it now, we might never get another chance.”Mary Wesley
Indeed The Camomile Lawn depicts a gentility who were in and out of each others beds. Blood and age were no barrier. Cousins seemingly thought nothing of sleeping with each other and older men deflowered young girls without a second thought. One of the cousins, Polly, enjoys a threesome with a set of twins because she couldn’t choose between them and later in life, even her own children are unsure as to which twin fathered them. Polly remembers the war as a happy time. “We all lived intensely. We did things we would never have done otherwise.”
Sex between consenting adults is one thing, but the novel also depicts a rather casual attitude toward the sexual abuse of young girls. Uncle Richard has a thing for young girls, including his three nieces, who all experienced the feel of his hands under their skirts when they were young. Typically he attempts to justify himself: “I can’t help liking little girls, they are so pretty,” but it is the girls attitudes about his behaviour that we, as contemporary readers, may find a bit disturbing. No doubt attitudes towards sexual abuse have changed significantly over the years, and perhaps people were more blasé about the long term consequences for children years ago, but still, passing off his behaviour as “mild” and “not awful…just boring,” was unsettling.
Another confronting theme of the book was the antisemitism of some members of the gentility. Max and Monika are jewish exiles who fled Germany, leaving their son behind incarcerated in a concentration camp in the belief he would soon be freed and follow them. Invited to a dinner party on the camomile lawn, they meet Richard who, in unbelievable ignorance and arrogance, claims how the camps “are doing all these people a power of good.” It seems there was a common belief that the concentration camps were nothing more than rumour, exaggeration and fake news. It was impossible for them to believe that such a horror could be real. Even many years after the war ended, some of the gentility seemed to live in some other reality, completely oblivious to how close they had come to defeat and absolutely convinced there had been “no need for the Jews to fuss.”
Despite a rocky start, Max and Richard develop a friendship, even swapping wives later on. While Richard’s wife, Helena, is off having an affair with Max in London, Monika stays behind at the big house and takes good care of Richard. Yet this does not instil any kind of sensitivity in Richard. Accused of treating Monika like a servant, he replies, “She doesn’t mind. She’s Hebrew. Slaves in Egypt and so on.” Even worse, he declares that her son is probably “dead by now, if you ask me. Hitler won’t be wanting useless mouths.”
The attitudes expressed are quite stunning actually and one wonders if they were really so arrogant or just naive. Yet I have read reports that antisemitism is on the rise and I suppose we should never be surprised by what lays dormant in people’s hearts and minds. Part way through the book Wesley introduces a time shift, moving the narrative between World War Two and some time in the future. On the way to Max’s funeral, a grown up Polly looks back on the war years, noting that while there had always been rumours, and “news trickling through via neutral countries,” if they had “known the size of the horrors (they) couldn’t have borne it.” Or maybe they just did not want to know.
Wesley is an entertaining writer but The Camomile Lawn is not an attractive depiction of the gentility. They are arrogant and selfish. The youngest cousin, Sophy, has been raised by Richard and Helena since the death of her mother, yet Helena is unbelievably cold and uncaring towards her. She packs Sophy off to boarding school and shows no interest whatsoever in her feelings: “Waste of time worrying about what that child felt. I never asked her.” The most important thing to Helena was her affair with Max. “The Jews may be enslaved, thought Helena, …but I am free of boring, boring Richard.”
Wesley’s father was a colonel and her first husband became a baron, so she was writing about a class she knew well. No wonder her siblings weren’t happy.