Mary Wesley’s first novel, Jumping the Queue, was published in 1983 when she was 71. When a novelist is discovered at an advanced age and becomes a star, the rest of us have hope for the future.
Do people still read Wesley? In the ’80s and ’90s, she was very popular. Women were and are starved for unconventional novels about women’s lives.
Her books are slightly reminiscent of the domestic comedies of Elizabeth Jane Howard, Alice Thomas Ellis, and Barbara Pym. Do women want romance? Sex? Marriage? Independence? Solitude? Wesley’s quirky characters consider all of their options.
The other day, when I came across Wesley’s books on my shelves, I couldn’t resist rereading. They are short, light, well-written, and witty, and, though her writing has a bite, there is a fairy-tale spin.
Second Fiddle, her sixth novel, is my favorite. She paints a brilliant comic portrait of life in a market town. When the unlikely hero, Claud Bannister, fails his university exams, he comes home to live with his mother. At a concert, where he realizes sulkily that he knows nothing about music and can’t have an opinion unless he reads a review in the Times, he is infuriated by the old people in the audience. When someone says his mother is witty, he wonders what the old can know about wit.
Grey, grey, grey, they are all grey, grey-haired and largely dressed in grey. Claud’s eyes roamed disapprovingly over the audience, seeing grey even when the heads were tinted black, auburn, even blond.
Isn’t this exactly how we feel when we’re young?
Then he meets Laura Thornby, a gorgeous 45-year-old friend of his mother’s who has accompanied a Roumanian composer to the concert in her hometown. Claud charms her with his plans to write a novel, and very soon she has organized Claud’s life. She has sex with Claud, gives him antiques from her family’s attic (she lives in London but still has a flat in her family’s house), and installs him in a neighbor’s loft so he can write. Ann Kennedy is at first dubious about the new male lodger, but her daughter, Mavis, a waitress and an actress, finds the situation very funny, and persuades her it is all right.
The characters behave unexpectedly. Margaret Bannister is only too glad to get rid of her son, and, in fact, she sells the house so he can’t come back. Laura’s mother and uncle are mischievous book reviewers who decide what tone they will take before they read a book. Laura is devoted to the eccentric couple, and when they have flu, she comes to take care of them, and is not shocked to find them in the same bed. And, to her surprise, Claud turns out to be a talented writer, and she finds herself falling in love, which is strictly against her rules.
Although Laura, who restores missing parts of statues for a living (hands, etc.), is fond of Claud, she has doubts about playing second fiddle to the heroine of his novel. And one wonders if part of this is because she is not an artist herself, but a restorer.
Although it may seem this is all about plot, Wesley’s dialogue is lively, the writing graceful, and it is the perfect length (184 pages) to read in an afternoon.
Lots of fun, and I’m so happy to find it has stood the test of time.