Mary Wesley CBE (1912-2002) was 71 before she wrote for adults and in the last 20 years of her life she published 10 bestsellers. Drawing upon the social upheaval and revolution in sexual mores that arose between the 1930s and 1960s her books are a delightful glimpse at the idiosyncrasies and values of the English upper class. Written with an economical but wry touch she focuses on mannerisms and style rather than in-depth character development and she neatly ridicules values and assumptions as old and new worlds collide. Often employing stereotypes in order to make a point, Wesley sets them up like skittles as she reveals them for what they are.
Poppy is presented to us numb with grief and shock from the revelation that her beastly, long-term boyfriend Edmund, has dumped her for another woman. In the midst of this turmoil she rushes off to see her terminally ill father, only to have him laugh himself to death with relief at her news. Bruised, confused and hurting Poppy moves into her father’s house to make funeral arrangements and promptly discovers that there was a great deal more to her dad than she ever knew and that she is now most comfortably provided for. Following her father’s last wishes she ignores convention and arranges for a full rococo funeral with horse hearse, mutes, plumes and trappings, and thus opens the door to a remarkable array of people, who all go to great lengths to avoid being honest about their feelings for each other.
Among this panoply of characters is a pig farmer with a soft heart, a novelist with writer’s block, an elegant, elderly beauty and several members of the landed gentry and horse-racing community. As the funeral wake warms up, the evil Edmund and his fiancée, Venetia arrive. Edmund is already finding that his new inamorata has more backbone than he does and that it is highly unlikely that he will be the one wearing the trousers as their relationship develops. Seeing an opportunity to return to more comfortable ground he whisks Poppy into his car and almost before she knows it he has her on a flight abroad with him. His job is to negotiate with the Minister in charge of the Government run tourist board in a minor and politically volatile un-named North African country. Here Wesley displays her wit to great effect as she imbues Edmund with the stereotypical traits of a public school twit and sets him in an alien culture where he mistakenly believes himself to be in a position of influence. Meanwhile the love struck pig farmer is in hot pursuit of them having lost his heart to the fair Poppy as she stood by her father’s coffin, the blocked writer is rethinking his literary plan to bump off his erstwhile wife, and the Right Honourable undertaker is having difficulties with his stablegirls.
I read this in 1986 and have revisited it several times. Light and wittily observant it is refreshing to laugh at the characters’ predicaments and to be entertained by their flaws, mannerisms and actions. There is no manipulation of our emotions, no need for us to bond with these characters or to fret over their woes and yet each character is just likeable enough to make the various outcomes a satisfactory resolution.
A 4 bite snack.