How We Met: Mary Wesley and Joan Brady

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The Independent Culture
Mary Wesley was born near Windsor in 1912. She is the author of eight best-selling novels, the first published when she was 70. Two, The Camomile Lawn and Harnessing Peacocks, have been adapted for television. Widowed, she lives 'rather a hermit's existence' in Devon.

Joan Brady, born in California in 1939, was once a ballet dancer. In 1965 she moved to Britain, and later began to write. Her first novel appeared in 1979; her second, Theory of War, in 1993. As Best Novel, it is up for Tuesday's Whitbread Book of the Year award. A widow, she lives in Devon.

MARY WESLEY: We met at a party in 1979, but we didn't speak. Joan was there with her husband, Dexter, a much older man. I knew that they were two Americans who kept themselves very much to themselves. Theirs was a great love affair, they didn't need others. It was only after he died, five years ago, that people started getting to know Joan. A mutual friend said she was interesting and fun, so I asked her to lunch.

I already knew she had written the autobiography of her life as a dancer some years before, but she told me her latest book had been rejected by her New York agent. I asked if I might read it and couldn't put it down. Theory of War represents a piece of American history nobody knows about.

At the end of the Civil War it was illegal to sell black slaves, but not white children. Joan's grandfather was sold at the age of four as a bounden child and the novel is based on his experiences. I sent it to my editor, who was equally impressed. He found her a publisher and now she's won a Whitbread award.

I suspect the New York agent was probably shocked by the contents. He had known her as a beautiful young girl and probably found it difficult to associate her with the book's grimness and ferocity. I also think he may have been a little jealous.

In the short time I've known her I have discovered her fears and strengths. Her brain is so good. At 50- odd she's taking an Open University mathematics degree - something I couldn't begin to understand. For me, anything mathematical or mechanical is out. I can't even type. She is a very graceful woman with a wonderfully fluid dancer's walk. She's a damned good cook. Her food always looks pretty, whereas I'm liable to serve her straight from the saucepan. The same things make us laugh, people mainly. But despite her fine mind she doesn't read - anything. Since Dexter died she's had this block. I'll say to her, 'Are you reading yet?' 'No.' It'll come back. To me it is so strange - reading is the greatest solace there is.

It's a ridiculous thing to say because she is so much more intelligent than I, but I feel very protective towards her. Although she has lived here for 30 years she is still a foreigner in a foreign country. She probably doesn't notice as acutely as I do the English habit of saying one thing and meaning another. I suspect she is quite lonely and rather insecure; I think all writers are.

I'm so frightened every time a book comes out I could go away and hide. You see, it's so secret. You live privately with this book for a year or more and then it's like throwing your baby out into the world and saying - fend for yourself. Joan hasn't learned to cover her terror as well as I have. Over the years I've grown a sort of carapace and people think I'm awfully tough. I'm not.

My husband died 24 years ago. I think the realisation she is achieving is that now she doesn't have a husband she can get on with her writing. I suspect Dexter Masters would not have appreciated, or liked, such a tough book as Theory of War. I think he would have wanted to tone down the violence and hatred. In a way it is very masculine. Without Dexter, she is finding her feet, not only as a writer, but as a person. Over the past year I've watched a gradual change in her house, less of Dexter, more of her taste, the disappearance of his hats, his mackintosh, the ramps built to help him upstairs. The house is charming, very ancient, very pretty.

I feel great friendship for her and it's something that will grow. I take a long time to make deep friendships. Joan is an acquisition to me because she is much younger, and what keeps old people alive is having much younger friends. I long ago reached the age when I don't go to parties expecting to meet somebody interesting. I'd rather save myself for the few people I really want to see. Joan is one of them.

JOAN BRADY: We were trying to figure out when we first met, and we couldn't quite decide. Mary recalls me from a party in 1979, a very Totnes affair, all multi-coloured chiffon and people discussing crystals and astrology. We had a mutual friend, an old lady named Edith, and we looked after her when she was ill - we'd call in with bowls of broth. That's my first memory of Mary, coming up Edith's garden path, carrying broth. I thought her an extraordinarily handsome woman. We didn't do much other than chat on the street about local things until my husband died five years ago, and then she was really quite marvellous to me.

By this time she had become a very successful author. Some years before I had published a novel and an autobiography telling of my life as a ballet dancer. When Mary asked me to lunch I was feeling a bit low; my New York agent had turned down my latest book, Theory of War. She asked to read it and I was a bit hesitant.

I felt the last thing she needed was being landed with a Totnes neighbour's dumped manuscript. But she was very complimentary, saying it had first kept her awake and then had given her nightmares, a pretty good thing to say of a book. She put me in touch with James Hale, her editor. He said he thought my American agent was out of his mind and he sold it to Deutsch.

Mary must have been a great beauty in her youth. Although she makes few concessions to vanity, she is very feminine. She has that extraordinary quality of phosphorescence on water. But the initial impression is one of extreme reserve. Then sudden flashes of humour break what had seemed quite impenetrable, and you realise she is a person of extraordinary breadth. Once at dinner I said something along the lines of how some people find her quite frightening. She called me about it the next day. She was totally puzzled, she just doesn't think of herself as a powerful woman, which in fact she is. Obviously in Totnes she's a major topic of conversation and everyone agrees her success hasn't changed her at all. I admire her assessment of people, something I don't feel I have. She is very penetrating, and accurate. You never know anybody terribly well, but I know her quite well. I'd certainly say she's among the most intelligent people I've met.

One of the things that has brought us together is a shared experience - we both nursed our husbands through long, degenerative illnesses. At the time Mary began to have success as a writer I was too absorbed in caring for Dexter to be aware of her books, but after his death I read Jumping the Queue and was impressed. It gives a view of the interplay in society, in much the same way as I had attempted to showthe ballet world in my autobiography. It encompasses the emptiness and viciousness and at the same time is very funny. There is such a lightness in what she does.

She has a wonderful sense of humour and we laugh a great deal. We once went to a book-signing in Plymouth and found they hadn't done any publicity - no one knew we were there. We were two women sitting behind piles of books - people thought we were stocktaking. Mary said: 'Keep signing - they can't send them back if they're signed.'

Her kindness didn't end with the introduction to James Hale. I had very little money when Dexter died, and when Deutsch invited me to London to discuss my book I almost didn't go, because of the cost of the train fare and the hotel. A week before the proposed meeting, an envelope dropped through my door with a note that said: 'Take this cheque and go up to London to meet your editor.' It turned out she had once been in the same situation and her lovely agent, Tessa Sale, had given the money to her. She won't speak of it, I've never been able to bring it up. I find it hard to express how much what she's done means to me. You just don't expect such generosity. It makes you feel better about the whole human race.-

(Photograph omitted)

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