I read The Camomile Lawn as a student and, being young and naive, was impressed by its suave, sophisticated, witty characters. With this in mind, I happily snaffled Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue when I found it on a bookshop expedition to Winchester with H. Now I wonder whether, if I were to reread The Camomile Lawn, I would find there the negatives that I noticed here alongside the wit and sophistication: detached indifference; clever people behaving horribly to one another; a rather nihilistic view of the world. What, really, is the point? That’s the question we find the recently widowed Matilda Poliport contemplating as the book starts. Carrying a basket of wine, cheese and fresh bread, she’s heading down to the beach for a picnic before she ends it all. When her plans are frustrated, she heads back to a life that she thought she had all neatly tied up; but this time she has an unexpected companion: a soul almost as lost as she is. Be warned. This is not a cosy piece of classic fiction. This is fiction with claws. And teeth.
Hugh Warner, whom Matilda finds on the brink of his own suicide attempt, is tired of running. His face is splashed all over the papers: he’s an object of national horror; the police are scouring the country for him; and he can’t imagine how he can ever find peace again. And why should he? When a man kills his mother, he can’t expect a calm conscience. He’s rather baffled by Matilda – bossy, organised, used to being in charge – who first interrupts him and then insists he come back with her for a proper rest. Initially amused, he takes on the position of observer in her life: a secret guest moving around within her comfortable cottage, trying to piece together clues which might reveal why this woman – who seems to have every luxury she desires – would want to kill herself. For Matilda’s part, she hasn’t given up on her intentions, but Hugh’s arrival gives her something to worry about for the time being. His arrival, and that of the stray dog Folly, leaves her strangely in possession of a family once again.
It’s family that’s the problem. As we grow to know Matilda, we also learn about her family: the late lamented Tom, the ideal husband (was he?) who died so suddenly and tragically during a business trip to Paris; her chic, self-absorbed daughters Annabel and Louise; her favourite son Claud, who spares her so little attention in return. And then there’s the family friend, the mysterious John, who has rechristened himself Piers in preparation for the official honours which he feels sure are coming his way. Who is John? What does he really know about Tom’s sticky end? And how far can he be trusted?
The scene is set for a rather satisfying little mystery, in which Matilda’s unexpected new lease of life might be expected to lead to discoveries, ends being tied up, new horizons being unfurled, all that sort of thing. Well, that’s what you might expect in any other book. But not here. Mary Wesley has a ruthlessly bleak view of human nature, she really does. It makes you want to weep. Everyone is in it for themselves, except maybe Hugh, who watches Matilda struggling to keep up the pretence of a good life well-lived, and who finally begins to understand the full scope of her family’s betrayal and shame. Little good is allowed to thrive in this rather bleak world: there’s the simple adoration of Matilda’s pet goose, Gus, and the warm solidity of Folly’s presence, and perhaps the growth of a cautious friendship with Hugh… but this is a world in which two people are living on borrowed time, both of them deeply aware of it but unwilling to speak the truth. When the finale comes, it’s brutal – one of the grimmest final chapters I’ve ever read, which leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth and a weight of hapless misery in the heart.
Wesley’s world may be full of elegant London lunches and silver-service murders (who commits a murder with a tea-tray, really?), but it’s a bitterly bleak world in which no one can be trusted, goodness goes unrewarded, anyone is capable of murder, and we are all, ultimately, left alone to face the dictates of our own hearts. Perhaps, if you were being particularly cynical, you might say that this holds up a truer mirror to the world than most novels. This is the grimdark of classic fiction, and it’s rather worrying to think that Wesley only started her career as a novelist at the age of seventy, so her character development comes from extensive experience of real life. God help us. I genuinely don’t think I ever want to read this book again, no matter how stylistically elegant it may be. I really don’t remember The Camomile Lawn being quite this depressing, so hopefully the other novel I picked up with this one – Not That Kind of Girl – is going to be marginally less soul-destroying as a commentary on human nature.
Indeed, the only positive outcome of reading this book was that I finished it with a deep craving for the stuff that Matilda has in her ‘suicide picnic’, so I went promptly off to the shops for some lovely fresh bread, brie, peaches and a nice bottle of red wine – all to be enjoyed, of course, without the obligation to top oneself afterwards. As book-inspired meals go, it was a rather lovely one…