Memories of Mary

The novelist Mary Wesley was a keen supporter of the Dartington literary festival, and a regular guest. This year's celebrations will be bittersweet without her. Kay Dunbar, the festival director, remembers a stylish friend
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A round 1990 I began to dream about organising a literature festival at Dartington Hall in Devon. "You should talk to Mary Wesley," a friend told me. She lived close by but I hadn't met her. I'd heard she was aloof, private and intimidating but I realised that if I was going to have any success with this idea I'd have to be bold and get on the phone to writers - intimidating or not. When I contacted her, Mary was excited and enthusiastic, kind and encouraging. She loved the idea of a literature festival on her territory. Soon afterwards she came to see me. My teenage daughter and I wore the kind of neat, cotton dresses we thought an old lady would like. Big mistake. She tripped out of her car looking stylish and beautiful in flowing silk trousers. Afterwards my daughter said "We looked real frumps next to her." Sadly true. Mary looked, thought, talked and walked like a young person. I shouldn't have been surprised when she died last December at the age of 90, but it felt like an untimely death.

In the 11 years since Ways With Words started, Mary has appeared at many of our festivals. This was an act of great generosity as going on stage terrified her, and she'd suck desperately on homeopathic tablets to calm her down before her event. She wouldn't give a talk or read from her books, but agreed to being interviewed on stage. This could be difficult for the interviewer as she wasn't particularly loquacious. By nature she was quiet and thoughtful and her answers were always brief and to the point, but usually entertaining. I remember one interviewer asking about the start of Jumping the Queue where the female protagonist sits on a rock on the beach in her swimsuit and enjoys sitting in her own warm pee. Why had she started the novel in this way, he asked. "Because it's the sort of thing I would do," Mary answered. It was typical of her - a startling, uninhibited reply.

Only last July she talked at the festival about her latest book, Part of the Scenery. With stunning photographs from Kim Sayer, it celebrates her 50 years in the West Country, and at the event she shared her love of Devon and Cornwall. As usual with Mary's events, the venue was packed. Afterwards Plymouth Gin, who had sponsored the talk, gave a party in the private garden at Dartington Hall to mark her recent 90th birthday. Mary glided among the guests with her usual poise. I thought then, we shall probably be giving a party for her 100th birthday.

If she wasn't on stage at the festival she would be in the audience. The only Dartington festival she missed was in 2000. Just before the festival she had broken her hip. Shaving her legs for a party, she had lost her balance and fallen over. When I went to see her she looked as elegant as ever. She had sent out a plea to friends for flowing caftans to cover the hip cage. She was furious at missing the festival. "We could get a wheelchair for you," I suggested. "Certainly not," she said, "people talk to you as if you are an idiot if you are in a wheelchair." Instead she held a salon at her home and several writer friends called to see her there.

When Barbara Trapido returned from her visit she told me that Mary had said, "This hip cage is a real bore: you can't drive, you can't shower and you can't fuck with it on."

Mary confounded all prejudices. Despite her aristocratic background (her first marriage made her Lady Swinfen) and patrician manner she was a serious socialist. When any Old Labour politicians came to Ways With Words she was keen to met them. Roy Hattersley was a favourite of hers and I always invited her to have dinner with him when he was at Dartington. She was less keen on his dog. "Buster tried to have sex with my leg," she complained. She chose Denis Healey as her luxury item on Desert Island Discs and was very pleased when he came to Ways With Words in 2002 and she was able to meet him and Edna.

Mary loved men. Last summer she came to a garden party at our house and kept whispering to me, "Who is that gorgeous man over there?" "Introduce me to that interesting man." Whenever she met my son she effused over his long legs, much to his embarrassment. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that she delighted in sexuality. Sex was a reason for joy and pleasure, not embarrassment, for Mary. She got very irritated by interviewers who expressed surprise that someone of her age should write so forthrightly about sex. "Well, the older you are, the more sex you have had," she would retort. That quietened them.

She was a voracious reader and was particularly interested in young writers, to whom she was a great support. She often phoned me to recommend writers for the festival. Many writers felt she held some secret key to instant success, but her only advice was to read a lot and get a large waste paper bin. Many reviews perpetuated the myth of her overnight success by saying she began writing in her seventies. This provoked one of her sharp responses, "I have been writing all my life. It was only in my seventies that the books were good enough to be published."

Mary's reserved, slightly distant manner belied a warm heart. She enjoyed socialising, joking and gossiping. Like many writers, she also became very attached to the characters in her books and many reappear in several novels because she wanted to "meet" them again. She once said that she found herself praying for one of her characters at mass one Sunday.

Mary's funeral was original, rule-breaking, eccentric - just like her. Those of us who normally wear black searched our wardrobes for something colourful. She had said that she hated the thought of a sea of dark colours at her funeral, so we donned pink jackets, blue shirts, stripey scarves. Her bright red rectangular coffin had been made by a friend some years ago and had doubled as a coffee table in her house until it was needed. It was carried in to the gentle sound of taped bird song. There was a Catholic priest and a requiem mass with all the smells and bells you would expect, but it took place at her request at the Anglican church in Totnes, appropriately called St Mary's, just minutes from her home. It was particularly poignant that it was a Friday, market day in Totnes. Mary had enjoyed Totnes market with its laid-back hippie stall holders and organic food. It had featured in her novel Second Fiddle.

A couple of years ago we took Mary to the Devon County Show, where she had been asked to do a book signing. It was a bit odd to see her sitting there among prize bulls, farm machines and long horned sheep. Lots of farmers and people in green wellies streamed by not noticing her or having any idea who she was until a woman stopped, clapped her hands to her mouth and gasped, "Is it really you? It can't be! I'm amazed you're still alive. I thought you'd be pushing up the daisies by now." I felt uneasy, but Mary much preferred this approach to deference and chuckled. "I should be pushing up the daisies by now," she said. Well, sadly now she is. I'll miss her at our 12th Dartington festival, but we're having a special free event to remember her (Monday 14 July, 5pm). This time she won't need to suck her homeopathic pills beforehand.

This year's Ways With Words Festival at Dartington Hall in Devon runs from 11-21 July. To obtain a copy of the programme, telephone 01803 867373 or visit the website at