Mary Anne – Daphne Du Maurier

Sometimes there is a special magical feeling that can take over you as you start a book. The writing has you, the characters have you, it is all just working and you know within between five and ten pages that this is going to be a book that you are going to love. I had this tingling sensation from the very start of ‘Mary Anne’, a novel  by Daphne Du Maurier that I have to admit I simply thought was going to be her ‘having a crack at the historical genre’. I wasn’t sure I would be convinced, even though it was Daphers at the helm, I was (of course) promptly and utterly bowled over by it. In fact I loved it so much that I lingered over it and almost didnt finish it in time for today’s planned post. Oops.

Virago, paperback, 1954, fiction, 320 pages, from my personal TBR

‘Mary Anne’ is a historical novel set in the Regency period. I was not familiar with this period, which is a period in British history from 1811 – 1820, before I started the book now however I am desperate to know much more. Daphne Du Maurier steeps the book in atmosphere from the very first pages which had me hooked as they were told from the death beds, and last memories of the four main men in Mary Anne’s life. After this we begin with her poor start in life in the grotty streets of London as she learns her charms and how to use them for her ascent, for that is really the initial part of the story, and how, after a rather disastrous marriage, Mary Anne becomes a prostitute (though a rather exclusive one) and the lover and mistress of the Duke of York. That isn’t the end of the story though, and doesn’t really cover the start if I am honest. I am just highlighting the tale but there is so much more to read it for, honest.

In attempt to avoid any spoilers I will say that once she becomes the lover of the Duke of York she gets rather overly used to the life of a rich woman and all its spoils, yet soon she wants more and more and so starts to do some rather underhand dealings in the name of the Duke which leads to a huge scandal. There is also that saying of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ and when the Duke decides that he is finished with Mary Anne, she isn’t so sure she is finished with him.

What makes this story all the more fascinating is that it is based on Daphne’s own great-great Grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke. Some might say ‘well where is the originality or plot design in that, writing about your own family history’ or indeed people might say ‘if it is about her own family isn’t she going to be biased’. With regard to the first point I would say a lot of authors write what they know and there was a great deal of time between Daphne writing this novel in 1954 and her great-great Grandmothers scandal. Plus the story is only part of the book, the atmosphere is incredible and I went from feeling like I wasn’t bothered about the era to now wanting to throw myself into more of it.

I do think that the fact Daphne was clearly fond of Mary Anne, in part because she was fascinating and also because she was part of the family, I did feel that there was a slight biased angle to the novel. I loved the character of Mary Anne, she is forthright, intelligent, ballsy, saucy and very witty (in fact I kept thinking it must have run in the family) and I loved spending time with her. I found the way she used her looks and charms to get what she wanted gave you that ‘tart with a heart’ twist which has made novels like ‘Moll Flanders’ etc so successful. However when the ‘scandal’ breaks she almost becomes a victim and I found myself thinking ‘hang on, this might not quite have been the case’. I then shrugged this off and got lost in the tale again.

I really enjoyed ‘Mary Anne’, my only criticism (or warning) would be that there is rather a lot of ‘courtroom drama’ towards the end of the book and I did find this a little wooden and research filled, but then I think all things courtroom based are quite dull (I was a legal secretary for a while in my early twenties and used to hate the court case work), its rare an author makes them exciting it’s a shame this was towards the end of the novel as it did slightly, though only very slightly, dull the books overall charm, though thankfully it didn’t become the lasting or lingering impression the book has on you.

I can’t hide the fact that I am thoroughly enjoying this Daphne-a-thon and cannot wait to get into ‘The House on the Strand’ for next weeks ‘Discovering Daphne Read-along’ on Sunday the 16th. In fact as it is so gloomy, foreboding, chilly and rather windily auntumnal outside today, I think the timing is perfect to pick it up right now.


Filed under Daphne Du Maurier, Discovering Daphne, Review, Virago Books

5 responses to “Mary Anne – Daphne Du Maurier

  1. I’m not keeping up with your reading schedule as I have an essay due in a few weeks and loads of reading to do, but I have been out and brought a copy of Frenchman’s Creek and borrowed The Birds from the library, looking forward to reading some Daphne as a treat for finishing the essay.

  2. Stephanie

    Your enthusiasm for all things Daphne is infectious. I agree with you; this is a captivating story. Daphne du Maurier painted London in this period with such a clear eye and vivid manner that you feel you are living in the streets of the rough and tumble as well as the rarefied atmosphere of the well to do. ‘Mary Anne’ is a compelling story because we see Mary Anne’s tenacity and self-belief as she tries to better herself and that of her children. She does not want to end up like her mother, married to an unreliable and bigamous drunkard. Her mother felt obligated to marry again after the death of her first husband so there would be a roof over her family’s head. In this era, there were very few options available to women to earn a living, which made women down on their circumstances wide open to exploitation. Unfortunately, Mary Anne made unwise choices as a young woman and ended up having to provide a reliable means of support for her siblings and children. And that required support meant finding a man but not one whom she could marry.
    Daphne shows us Mary Anne at her most charming; she has a vivacious personality and quick intelligence, which attracts interest from many and eventually she comes to the attention of one who provides favours for the aristocracy. The current fashion was for a companion who is attractive, lively and well informed rather than the standard issue of decorative fluff. She really believed she has arrived when the Duke of York showed her so much attention and he clearly enjoyed and appreciated her company. However, the DoY was like much of his family and very poor at managing money. He provides her with a house, which requires considerable upkeep and a mere pittance of income so she has to look for other means to provide all that is expected of her in supplying him with the comfort and services his station in life requires. The Duke is essentially complicit in her actions as her added costs for running this new household are all incurred in providing for the shortfall in this lavish life that she has to provide for him. I don’t feel the Duke actually tired of her but rather that the ‘hangers on’ surrounding her all contrived in their own ignorant and selfish manner to pull her down and that the Duke’s own advisors steered him strongly out of the way of ‘that woman’!
    The stories of life in Mary Anne’s household are lovingly set out and told with fun by du Maurier and show what great company Mary Anne was. She had a keen eye and discerning wit that could attract many a man.
    The manner in which this story unfolded reminded me of ‘Wolf Hall’ as you felt you were in the head of Mary Anne seeing things unfolding as though through her eyes. She had a drive and determination, which set her apart and you wonder how much she could have achieved in the modern era in a fairer time. There is a real drive and pace in the narrative which drives the story forward. I finished the story admiring Mary Anne and wished I could have known her even from afar.

    • Wow Stephanie. I don’t know where to start with such a wonderful and detailed comment. Actually I should start by saying how sorry I am not to comment back sooner.

      Anyway your thoughts have given me food for thought and I think the more distance I have from Mary Anne the better I think the book is. It’s just a brilliant historical escapist read.

  3. Pingback: Discovering Daphne… In Her Own Words |

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