Friday, 16 May 2008

An Imaginative Experience - and one which nearly escaped me

After reading Patrick Marnham’s entertaining and exemplary biography, Wild Mary a couple of months ago, I revisited a couple of Mary Wesley’s novels after a gap of twenty-odd years and enjoyed them enormously. And I planned to re-read the others during the year as well.

Given that I had them all sitting on my shelves.

Or did I?

While on a book-foraging visit to my favourite charity shops in Colchester a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a copy of An Imaginative Experience.

It didn’t look familiar.

I read the back cover blurb. I read the first couple of pages. Heavens! I’d never read this one. How can this possibly have happened?!

Then I looked at the publication date. 1994. That explained everything. I would have been deep in the strange world of new motherhood at the time – my eldest was born late in 1993. And one of the consequences of that whole experience was a disastrous falling off in my reading habits - from avid to practically nil (apart from books with titles along the lines of ‘How To Make Your Baby Sleep for More than An Hour at a Time’ or ‘How to Survive Colic and Stay Sane’).

So I proffered my shiny pound and bought it. And the next day I read it in one sitting (it’s Wesley’s shortest novel by far). It’s not her best, in my view, but it certainly has some vintage Wesley moments. And how’s this for an opening paragraph?

‘The sheep lay on its back in the centre of the field with its legs in the air. As the InterCity train ground to a halt an acrid smell from the brakes percolated through the First Class carriages: one of the passengers sneezed.’

The themes in the interwoven stories of Sylvester and Julia seem darker, more desperate than in some of Wesley's earlier novels. Where often her characters’ reactions to betrayal, loss, bereavement and other extremities of human experience can be startlingly worldly and insouciant, here they are raw, heartbreaking and described with searing intensity.

This was such an unexpected joy to read (while making what I think of as the ‘usual allowances’ for a slight didactic tendency which crept into her later novels - here she over-emphasises the racial harmony strand, I feel) that I have redoubled my resolve to read the rest of the Wesley oeuvre over the summer.

Since all bibliophiles in the known universe probably read this book a decade ago, I'm not going to waste everyone's time blethering on about the plot or characters. For a bit of background, there’s an interesting interview with Mary Wesley about An Imaginative Experience here.


galant said...

How lovely that you've found a Mary Wesley novel you've not yet read! I also have this book on the shelf, unread, saving it as it were, because I know there will be no more.
I interviewed Mary Wesley in the year before she died. I visited her in her cottage behind the High Street in Totnes, Devon. When I arrived she was shooing a cat out of her garden with one of those large pump-action water pistols! To see the diminuative figure of Mary, who was then in her late 80s priming the water pistol was a surreal.
I was with Mary for about an hour. She was most courteous, made us coffee and we chatted in her small but elegant sitting room. She was still a very stylish woman - I think I referred to her in one of the two articles I had published following the interview, as an Edwardian in a denim skirt.
from: Margaret Powling.
PS The articles I wrote after meeting Mary appeared in Devon Life and in Country, the magazine of the Country Gentleman's Association.

Anonymous said...

I bought my first ever Mary Wesley novel today (The Vacillations of Poppy Carew) so was delighted to read your post! I'm moving it straight to the top of the TBR pile.

I was a toddler when most of her novels were published, so yes there are some bibliophiles in the known universe who haven't read them yet.

Anonymous said...

I'm having a moment...I know I have some Mary Wesley books on my shelf but I just cannot remember if I have actually read them. Well, I am glad you wrote this as it has inspired me to get them down and read them. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Glad you mentioned Wild Mary. While I don't think it's necessary to be familiar with a novelist's life to enjoy their work, in Mary Wesley's case, it does enhance the reading. Apart from which Wild Mary is, as you say, an exemplary biography; if I hadn't already read most of her novels beforehand, I would have rushed out and bought every one that I could lay my hands on.

She's also one of those authors who transcends generations. My late mother (b 1907) was a fan, as am I and so is my daughter.

To be honest, I think Mary W and her books are far more interesting than another West Country literary icon, whom I won't bother to name as she is everywhere at the moment. So there!

Juliet said...

Galant - how lucky to have met Mary Wesley in person.

Sarah - apologies for my unthinking bit of inverted ageism there! Poppy was the first Wesley I read, too. Look forward to finding out how you get on with it. I can't imagine anyone not loving Wesley. As a later comment points out - her books transcend generations. I would thoroughly recommend the Patrick Marnham biography if you find yourself going on a Wesley reading spree!

T - perfect summer reading - I hope you can find them. They'd look very good in the basket of your funky new bike!

D - ooh, you subversive iconoclast, you! Will you ever be forgiven?!

Anonymous said...

Mmm, no-one has ever called me a subversive iconoclast before - but I could get used to it . . .