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Wild Mary: The Life of Mary Wesley

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The authorized, and astonishing, biography of Mary Wesley.

Descended from the Duke of Wellington, Mary Wesley grew up a rebel, believing that she was her mother’s least favourite child. Like many girls of her background, she married for escape, although her first marriage (to Lord Swinfen) was conventional. Her second husband, Eric Siepmann, a writer who never managed to make any money at all, was feckless and bohemian. In between Swinfen and Siepmann, she had a love affair with Czech war hero, Heinz Ziegler — and possibly with his brother at the same time; and in her later years enjoyed a torrid relationship with screenwriter Robert Bolt.

At the outbreak of the Second World War she was, as she put it, “roped into intelligence,” where she worked on breaking codes. Her experiences in MI5, and her many wartime love affairs, which form the core of this biography, also formed the cores of her novels. She wrote about the atmosphere of the home front and how war dislocates families, and how a sense of the imminence of death loosens the inhibitions.

Through hours of interviews with Mary and access to her personal papers, Patrick Marnham discovered her story. It is a story of near-suicide and reckless courage, and tells of how a passionate and headstrong woman turned her back on her privileged position and succeeded in living life on her own uncompromising terms.

304 pages, Paperback

First published November 23, 2004

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Patrick Marnham

34 books9 followers

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5 stars
80 (25%)
4 stars
112 (35%)
3 stars
91 (28%)
2 stars
23 (7%)
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9 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews
Profile Image for Boadicea.
186 reviews56 followers
November 10, 2019
This is an authorised & well researched biography of a quite unusual woman born in 1912, who despite an apparently privileged upbringing in Southern England to a gentrified but highly dysfunctional family, divorced her 1st aristocratic husband during World War 2. She then went onto marry "the wickedst man in the world" following multiple liaisons, & a scandalous divorce well publicised in the media, to whom she stayed loyal until his death in 1970 despite significant poverty. Subsequently, she became a bestselling author, despite very limited schooling & education, not helped by a succession of governesses (16) over 10 years, attending boarding school only when her parents went to India when she was 14 years old after she had been abandoned by her mother in a hotel in France for 3 months!
Her 1st book was published at the tender age of 70 with "Jumping the Queue" but her subsequent books, particularly "The Camomile Lawn", "Harnessing Peacocks", "Not That Sort of Girl", "A Dubious Legacy", put out annually for the next 9 years, which made her name & fortune.
Even at the age of 80, she was a formidable flirt, & would have been a great guest at a dinner party from all accounts! She wrote about what she knew, which made her books racy, quirky & dramatic with a terrific lust for life in all its forms.
She had 3 sons, each a different father; sadly they also succumbed to squabbling over family inheritances in her lifetime just as she had suffered, continuing significant damage to family relationships.
However, she clearly was generous, disarming & a highly amusing correspondent to many people over the years; possibly her biographer, who met her in her terminal year, could have been a little more ambitious in his description of her emotional status at times, whilst acknowledging the privacy of his subject.
I have previously read only 1 of her books prior so it was good to get some background & I look forward to reading more.
182 reviews
October 12, 2010
I wanted to award more stars for the subject, and less stars for the awful writing of the biography.

Mary Wesley was a complex and troubled character. Her story is a rollicking one: a cast of lovers, two marriages, riches and poverty, and a late successful career as a writer.

However I am rather aghast at the dreadful writing of her biographer. My objections are two-fold: firstly his treatment of the subject and the major themes in her life. An incredible over emphasis on her sex life during the war. Yes it was important to her and her latterly her writing, but she can't have spent the whole of the war bonking officers. Sheesh there was a world war going on! I found the limit of perspective her annoying in the end.

The actual writing is rather technically poor and found myself trying to puzzle out what was going in sentences and paragraphs. All rather strange considering the author was a Literary Editor of the Spectator.

I read a far better researched and written book set in WWII recently and the pace and writing propelled the reader along. Sadly and terribly unfittingly as a biography for a writer, this one did neither. This book needed editing properly, as reads like a first draft far too often.

A teacher's report would read "could do better". A missed oppportunity.
Profile Image for Ruth Morgan.
Author 38 books25 followers
January 17, 2021
A bit of a rambling read but a fascinating portrait of a wild life buffeted about by wild times. A lot of people liked Mary. She comes across as warm, generous and brave and she endured a lot. She was hurt by those closest to her but it's impossible her recklessness and mistakes didn't hurt others. She was wise to the mistakes she'd made which as she grew older, she found more and more painful. She replayed themes from her life and the people she'd known, in her stories. She wasn't the only wild one - this book contains fascinating insights into the privileged classes, throttled by stuffy convention and the complicated, churned up relationships which result.
March 28, 2010
I love Mary Wesley - have done since I read them all when they first came out in my late teens/early twenties. Have recently re-read them all and enjoyed them even more! This is almost more fun than the actual books!
Profile Image for Kathy.
326 reviews32 followers
October 27, 2013
Hmm. Obviously I need to add "biography" to my shelves. And this is quite the bio, demonstrating that neither trauma nor complicated sexual affairs were invented by the current generation. The friend who lent me this one also gave/lent me a number of Wesley's novels, and they definitely make sense in the context of her life.

She published her first novel at 70. Yep, seventy years old. She lived into her early 90's, and was apparently quite popular during the 1980's when most of her novels came out, practically once a year. (I still wonder how I missed them, because I was working at a bookshop and keeping up with current trends, but apparently what was current in London was not current in a rural town, pop 1300.)

It's sad, inspiring, funny, maddening. I wish that Mary herself had managed to write it, but when you are dying and in your 90's I guess the next best thing is to tell your story to a handsome young person.

Going back to the novels (I've read 2 thus far, and friend says they are the best two, but...there are more, and I shall lick them up with glee.)
Profile Image for Kim Stallwood.
Author 7 books35 followers
August 27, 2014
An interesting biography about the novelist Mary Wesley. My affection for her novel, The Camomile Lawn, prompted me to read it. I came to this novel through its telly adaptation that's excellent. The Camomile Lawn is a great story with fascinating characters. I find it interesting to read about writers and particularly with Mary Wesley to learn how her life influenced her creativity. She came to be a very successful author late in her life. Wild Mary, which was authorised by Mary Wesley, chronicles her life and the author, Patrick Marnham, charts well her life and its impact on her novels. I doubt that I would have liked Mary Wesley if there had ever been an opportunity to meet or know her. She was a complicated individual who endured much grief in her lifetime. Some of which she would admit, I think, was brought upon herself. Nonetheless, this biography reveals with great respect by the biographer an individual who was determined to live her own life on her own terms. In anyone, this is something to be admired.
Profile Image for Sandra.
Author 12 books27 followers
December 12, 2016
I devoured Mary Wesley's novels during the 80s and 90s, reading and re-reading several times. When this came out in hardback I fully intended to get the PB ASAP, but for reasons unfathomable did not.

This was everything I could hope for in a biography - lucid, an excellent balance of information on life and how it affected art and written with a skill that imbues the book with the compulsion of a thriller. And such a life, such a fascinating, vivid character, whose life was in part enviable, but in others very much not.
Thank you, Patrick Marnham - this is an excellent job.
Profile Image for Leenda dela Luna.
98 reviews5 followers
May 23, 2011
Hated it. Too many British (??) names, titles & places to follow. I gave up 1/2 way through.
Profile Image for Lara.
590 reviews6 followers
July 29, 2014
Though I don't remember the contents, I do remember reading Mary Wesley's novels when they were first published on the recommendation of my mother. She, only 12 years younger than Mary, was entertained by the author's bohemian lifestyle and entranced by the idea of someone making a new and successful life in her seventies. There is hope for us all...

So I was intrigued to read this biography, and fascinated by Mary's eventful life. More or less abandoned by her upper-crust family who went to live in India leaving her behind, Mary during the war took a multitude of lovers, did secret work, married a titled rich man, and had another man's child before leaving him. Later she married again to a seeming incompetent charmer, and lived the next 30 years in great poverty, before becoming a widow and finding her literary voice.

An ideal subject for a biography then, and Patrick Marnham certainly did his research. But for much of this read I felt as though I were seeing Mary through the wrong end of a telescope. So many events and names, but I was clueless as to how Mary felt about much of it. Patrick interviewed her many times but didn't seem to be able to delve where she was reluctant to elucidate. So, a fascinating, generous woman who attracted people, but was distant with her own children; who seemed to role with fortune and misfortune with equal grace, and still to me a conundrum. I will be looking out for one of her novels to see if she reveals herself more clearly in them.

Sent from my iPad
37 reviews2 followers
April 14, 2012
I liked Mary Wesley's books when I read them a long time ago and found it very inspiring that she didn't get published until she was 70 and then got on and wrote more and more books. This biography is very well named, she certainly did live a wild life. It was interesting to read about the way she chose to live, particularly during World War II, can't help thinking though that she did lead a very privileged life and somehow, even though she had children and, after she'd married Eric, she lived in very reduced circumstances, she still managed to do whatever she felt like doing. So depending on your view she was either really selfish and irresponsible or way ahead of her time in being a woman living her life according to her own values.
Profile Image for Belle.
232 reviews
January 30, 2015
I found this hard going at times and it took me longer than I expected to finish it. I found the writing hard to follow and frequently found myself having to go back and forth to find my bearings or to remind myself of a person. Obviously Mary Wesley lived in a different time and she was the product of a class system that I can't relate to but despite my best efforts I didnt particularly find her likeable because she frequently came across as extremely selfish and sometimes rather spoilt.

Having said that, I was inspired by this biography and the desire to possibly understand her better, to read some of her books and I am glad that I did. I enjoyed them and having read the biography, it helped me to further understand and appreciate her work.

4 reviews
July 26, 2019
What a life! This is a very conventional biography of the very unconventional life of an upper class woman born in 1912. I found it rather pedestrian and dull, full of facts, attentive to chronology and evidence. It is very competently written but I just feel Mary Wesley deserves something more. She was a complex individual from a family torn apart by rivalries, jealousies, hatred. I would have really liked a little more insight into this legacy. It surely had a massive impact on her personal psychology and must account for how Mary unconsciously recreated the same bitter rifts between her and her own children. Marnham sticks to facts and avoids analysis or interpretation. The result is a rather superficial portrayal of this complex individual.
Profile Image for Sarah.
63 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2009
I found this biography a little difficult to read. It jumped all over the place in terms of time, and I would have found a time-line reference really helpful. I persevered as i LOVE Mary Wesley so much, and did find her life fascinating.

I rented the BBC version of the Camomile Lawn as Calypso is supposed to be the character which most represents her. I would recommend this to Mary Wesley enthusiasts, or folks interested in learing about life in Britain during the 2nd world war.
Profile Image for Karlie.
76 reviews8 followers
April 26, 2013
My aunt lent me this book. I hadn't heard of Mary Wesley before but the book, and the lady, sounded very interesting. Mary did have a very interesting life. I especially enjoyed the parts during WWII. However I don't like the style of the author's writing. Very choppy and seems unedited.
Profile Image for Lily.
122 reviews
October 4, 2014
What an interesting life Mary Wesley led, so far removed from my own experience it was hard to connect with it. I'm afraid Marnham didn't make an easy read of it, providing a lot of detail and history of minor characters, not necessarily adding anything useful to my understanding of Wesley.
Profile Image for Kevin Hayes.
3 reviews
August 18, 2007
I've got a thing about eccentric English society types (can't wait for an Izzy Blow biography) and this really hit the spot.
Profile Image for Tracey  Wilde.
228 reviews5 followers
November 11, 2008
An amazing woman with an amazing life. Having read a lot of her books I can see from this biography that a lot of things were from her own life. Recommended.
Profile Image for Jess.
131 reviews3 followers
May 14, 2010
Loved all of Mary Wesley's books and was very interested to read her biography...an interesting woman
Profile Image for Juliana Graham.
478 reviews8 followers
July 30, 2011
Quite disappointing. She had a very exciting life but this book recounted it like an historical text book.
Profile Image for Hannah.
Author 24 books459 followers
July 27, 2012
I absolutely LOVED this book. It will be one of my all time favorites. Brilliant biography. What an astonishing woman. I have now ordered A Dubious Legacy and The Camomile Lawn to read.
Profile Image for Jillian.
136 reviews
July 27, 2019
What a life! This is a very conventional biography of a very unconventional upper class woman. It relies on facts, chronology, detail. I found it pedestrian and a little dull and I think Mary Wesley deserves more. She came from a high society family torn apart by rivalries and jealousies. This book barely scrapes the surface of how that legacy defined Mary and her recreation of bitter divisions between her own children. It lacks analysis or insight. Too eager to emphasize research, it ends up superficial.
September 2, 2017
What a life to have had, so much material to go into her book. There were times when the factual references from the author were a bit much, however Mary's story was so action packed it kept the book moving along. Now I can't wait to read The Camomile Lawn!
Profile Image for A. Yeoman.
Author 5 books1 follower
September 19, 2020
I love Mary Wesley's novels and loved re-reading about her life. Anyone who can sell their first novel when a pensioner and then go on to become wealthy from sales of her novels, is someone to praise.
Profile Image for Marni.
950 reviews
September 26, 2017
Quite a life. I just read Rachel's review which commented on the writing style of the biographer. It was deadly boring often, but the subject was so fascinating, I couldn't stop.
339 reviews2 followers
July 12, 2018
I enjoyed all of Mary Wesley’s books and her biography is just as entertaining. Great attention to detail and an insight into an honest, flawed and fascinating person.
Profile Image for Deb.
119 reviews
March 16, 2019
Fascinating story - fast paced and brutally honest - no sugar coating of consequences of dysfunctional family and a lot more beyond.

69 reviews
May 30, 2020
An interesting book about Mary's life but I found it dragged a bit in the middle may be due to the lack of information that was available
Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews

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