Mary Anne

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.

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10 Responses to Mary Anne

  1. I haven’t read Rebecca but have been meaning to for years! Maybe Daphne du Maurier Reading Week is the perfect excuse

  2. This is the book I read for DDM reading week, and I feel very similarly to you. I really enjoyed the first half but felt completely bogged down in the legalese at the end. Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel are far better. I have yet to read any others but definitely plan to.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, it was a shame that the detail got so overwhelming.
      Jamaica Inn is a really fun one if you’re looking for a candidate to your next choice. It’s less serious than the others that I’ve read, but there’s a lot going on in it. And her short stories are very good.

  3. heavenali says:

    I ‘m glad this one improved for you towards the end, I enjoyed this last year. I can see how much of the detail gets a bit much though.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I wouldn’t have minded if that section hadn’t gone on so long. But the scene where she goes to the prison made it worth hanging on. Such great writing there!

  4. This is sitting unread on my bookshelf too, and I can’t quite make up my mind to read it

  5. Brona says:

    I remember this book simply because it was my first DDM and got me reading her other titles. It was also one I picked up in a BnB library on my last trip to the UK in 2007. Given the state of the world right now, it may be a long time before I do this type of trip again, so these memories are even more precious.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, wow. Such great memories! I always like to pick up books on my travels, too. I managed to get to Scotland last year, and I’m glad I did because this year and maybe next are looking impossible for that kind of trip.

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