Daphne du Maurier’s Mary Anne sounds incredibly interesting on the face of it; it is a ‘frank’ fictionalised account of Daphne’s own great-great-grandmother, royal mistress Mary Anne, ‘a woman with the “Nell Gwynn touch”‘. The book focuses upon Mary Anne’s ‘unprecedented act of revenge against a faithless lover’, the Duke of York, whilst the Napoleonic wars were in full force.
First published in 1954, Mary Anne begins in a striking manner: ‘Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile.’ Du Maurier goes on to say: ‘The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living’. We consequently meet young Mary Anne in her last days: ‘At seventy-six, she sat at the window of her house in Boulogne, looking across the channel to an England that had forgotten all about her. Her favourite daughter was dead, and the second lived in London, and the grandchildren she had nursed as babies were ashamed of her and never wrote. The son she adored had his own life to lead. The men and women she had known had passed into oblivion. The dreams were all hers’. In this manner, du Maurier launches straight into Mary Anne’s story.
Throughout, the sense of place has been thoughtfully created, to the extent that it is almost possible to imagine that we are in smoggy eighteenth-century London with young Mary Anne at the beginning of the novel: ‘Then away they went, out of the dark alley where the sun never shone… It came to her in gusts, the sound and the smell of London, and she felt part of it, caught up in the movement and the bustle, the continual excitement that must surely be leading to something, to somewhere – not only to the steps of St Paul’s, where the boys could play safely, out of the stream, and she could stand, watching’.
Du Maurier also methodically sets out the social situation which Mary Anne and her siblings were born into: ‘The way to avoid rags and starvation was to watch, to wait, to pick up the coin dropped on the pavement before anyone else, to run swiftly, to conceal quickly, to smile at the right moment, to hide at the next, to keep what you had, to look after your own. The thing to remember was not to grow up like her mother, who was weak, who had no resistance, who was lost in this world of London that was alien to her, and whose only consolation was to talk of the past, when she had known better days’. Mary Anne starts to claw her way out of poverty, determined to live a better life than those she knows.
Our protagonist is vivid and distinct; she is a strong and feisty woman, and is rather sensible too. She takes it upon herself to work when her drunken husband becomes increasingly absent, and decides to limit her brood of children to four so as to create ‘no paupers for the parish’. As a fictionalised construct, she is interesting, and one cannot help but wonder quite how similar she is to her real-life counterpart. Despite this, those around her are not as well developed. The Duke of York particularly is rather flat and unrealistic.
Mary Anne is an easy novel to read; one is launched directly into the story and meets all of the characters at intervals. There are some drawbacks, however. The first half of the story is very interesting, but the second was rather bogged down in the minutiae of law, and I found it quite dull. Some of the phrasings within conversations did not at all fit with the time period. The whole of the novel unfortunately felt rather uneven in this respect.