Author: Daphne du Maurier
Published: Pan, 1979, pp. 381
Genre: Historical fiction
Blurb: In the glittering, corrupt world of Regency London, Mary Anne Clarke had beauty, brains and wit — but no money. Spurred on by the demands of a drunken husband, a wastrel brother and four children, she chose an exacting profession, aimed for the top — and soon became the mistress of the Duke of York. For her family she raised a fortune by selling military commissions. The scandal rocked the country from palace to Parliament. The Duke was disgraced, the Royal Family shamed…
When, where and why: I bought this from a charity shop book back when I was still at school. I had recently read Jamaica Inn and was completely in love with Daphne du Maurier, hence I picked it up. Evidently something else took my fancy soon afterwards though, as it’s been sat unread on my shelf since then and so counts as book 22/50 for my Books Off the Shelf Challenge. I was prompted to read it now for a reading challenge in which I’m taking part to fulfil the category ‘A historical fiction book with a woman’s name in the title’.
What I thought: Mary Anne is a fictionalisation of the life of Mary Anne Clarke, Daphne du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother. I was interested to see how du Maurier would deal with this, as all of her previous works that I’ve read have been pure fiction. Authors who write fictionalised history tend to focus either on background characters to give themselves more room for creativity, or on big, famous figures who feature prominently in the era-shaping events of the time. Mary Anne falls in between these two categories; she plays an important and scandalous role in the history of the Duke of York but she is no longer a notorious or even well-known person. Consequently, I approached this book looking forward to finding out about someone new. I mean, I love the Tudors as much as the next person, but it makes a refreshing change to read about a royal mistress who isn’t Anne Boleyn.
Mary Anne herself is a wonderful, complex character. She is quick-witted, charming, warm and endlessly engaging to read about, yet she is also selfish, cunning and ruthless. I definitely enjoyed the way that du Maurier portrays her as a flawed character, rather than showing a bias towards her relation as she might have done. She manages to make Mary Anne neither a witty woman who is finally worn down by a patriarchal society nor a naive victim who is merely a pawn in someone else’s game, but a wonderful blend of the two. Mary Anne is both pawn and player, both used and using and she comes across as all the more real because of it.
Although Mary Anne is fully-developed, the rest of the chracters were not as well-rounded; most of them were little more than a name and there were also far too many of them. I appreciate that these characters are all real people and so their presence in the story reflects their real interactions with Mary Anne and is necessary in order to represent her history with any sort of accuracy, but the sheer number of names without any distinct characteristics quickly became confusing. The effect is that the book feels as though it is populated by ghosts and is consequently rather empty; Mary Anne my be fascinating, but one great character does not make a novel.
My other criticism of this book is that the main scandal of Mary Anne’s life and thus the focal point of the novel is the series of court cases in which she testified to bring down the great men of her day. This is reported in an unfortunately dry fashion, with lots of reported speech, inserted letters and long periods of very clipped dialogue. It may be an accurate reflection of early 19th century court proceedings but it isn’t very interesting to read and slows down the pace of the novel. I did think that parts of the novel where du Maurier isn’t constrained by a desire to represent history are particularly good, though, especially the beginning and ending of the novel. My end verdict is that the book is mostly interesting, but not as compelling as the novels that I’ve come to expect from this writer. I know that The Glass Blowers is also based on Daphne du Maurier’s family history, so I’ll be interested to read that one and see how it deals with the same problems of historical necessity.
Where this book goes: This book joins the rest of my Daphne du Maurier collection back on the shelf.
Tea talk: The nasty cold weather has seen me finishing up the last of the tasty Russian Caravan. I’ll have to see about taking myself off to a tea shop to get some more warming smoked tea, as the winter is only going to get colder.