For Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali, I turned to the only unread du Maurier novel on my bookcase, the 1954 novel Mary Anne, based on the life of the author’s great-grandmother. I’ve loved all of the du Maurier novels I’ve read in the past (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, and The Parasites), but my reaction to this was much more mixed. At the beginning, it’s an exciting story of a woman living by her wits to get out of poverty and into a life of luxury, but then it becomes a nearly inscrutable legal drama, recovering slightly in the end as Mary Anne’s fate is revealed.
Mary Anne is born to a poor family, with a father who corrects printers’ proofs for a living, with Mary Anne’s secret (at first) help. Once her talent is revealed, her father’s employer offers to get her an education, and so she goes off to school, where she learns skills and manners that will eventually enable her to mix with more elegant society. That, on top of her natural cleverness, enables her, as an adult, to climb the social ladder as mistress to influential men. Eventually, she ends up in a relationship with the Duke of York, who sets her up in a home, takes care of her children from a previous marriage, and gives her an opportunity to grow her income by accepting bribes from those who want favors from the duke.
Mary Anne’s maneuverings are a bit shady, but she makes no secret of what she is doing. It’s exciting to watch her put all her past experiences and the talents she’s built up over the years to work to improve her status. The rise of a clever woman is a popular story for a reason. But when Mary Anne’s actions come back to bite her, the story itself comes to a grinding halt, turning into a not very dramatic courtroom drama.
I should make clear that I’m not sure how much of my problem with most of the last half of the book has to do with my own lack of understanding of the British political system of the early 19th century and how much has to do with du Maurier’s decision to act almost like a court reporter, detailing every bit of testimony. I suspect it’s a bit of both. If I understood the system better, I would have been less confused and wanted less direct explanation of who was who and what each turn in the proceedings meant. However, I’m not convinced that the level of detail presented was warranted or helpful.
As I said at the beginning, the book recovers a bit at the end, when Mary Anne’s ultimate destiny is revealed. There are moments of high emotion and drama here that are clear to anyone, whether or not they understand 19th-century law and politics. And it’s this human drama that interested me.
In the end, the good parts of the book are very good, but they constitute only about half of the novel. So a mixed bag for sure and nowhere near as good as her other books. My Cousin Rachel remains my personal favorite for its glorious ambiguity. If you haven’t read that, it’s the one I recommend most.