TV has gone too far, says Middle England's high priestess of passion

Cheltenham Literary Festival sponsored by The Independent
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The Independent Online
Mary Wesley went to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and captivated her audience with a lecture on sex. Sam Taylor listened to the 84-year-old novelist who could teach Doctor Ruth a thing or two.

Sex has come to Cheltenham. In a room packed with loyal fans, fed a diet of unbridled passion, heaving bosoms, handsome heroes and sexually bereft heroines, this was the moment they had been waiting for. They smiled when she mentioned her socialism, they cooed when she spoke lovingly of her home in Cornwall, they cheered the good news of her successful hip replacement but mostly they wriggled in their seats, waiting.

And they weren't disappointed. Mary Wesley does sex for middle England like no other. "Sex," said Mary, "Is everywhere you look, in the street, in paintings, in music, in gestures, in just about everything." And, of course, in her novels. This, after all, is the woman that brought us the Camomile Lawn, a book that, when it was subsequently adapted for the small screen by Sir Peter Hall, kept the nation goggle-eyed week after week, enraptured by the extremely high bare-breast count. The whole nation that is, except for the author herself. "I hated the way they adapted the Camomile Lawn for the television", she fumed. "All those long languorous sex scenes were so out of context because we didn't have central heating during the war and so although we certainly had lots of sex, we certainly didn't take all our clothes of. It was far too cold for all that. We went to bed in several sturdy sweaters and only took some of them off when we were actually under the blankets."

It wasn't she explained that she was a prude, far from it, just that it made her extremely angry that the BBC had seen fit to abandon completely the period of the book. "Unforgivable", she added. "Here, here," said the elderly Cheltenham gentleman seated at the back of the hall. "I never got a good look at my wife's body for years and even then we had to have the lights off."

Mary, who didn't write her first novel, Jumping The Queue, until she was 70, gained her own sexual education in a time when young women were kept ignorant and innocent and the majority of her peers didn't have a clue what to expect. "I remember during the war, a young girl of 24 years old who was engaged to be married came up to me and asked if I could explain to her what would happen on her wedding night. I was married myself with young children and so she safely assumed I would know. When I told her how it all worked she just couldn't believe it!"

But the longer the war went on the more freedom women gained. "We had fun during the war because there was a sense, and this is what I tried to capture in the Camomile Lawn, that we might not have another chance. Consequently we spent a lot of time having parties and love affairs because every time might have been the last time."

It was, Mary explained to her captive audience, a good thing that women of the younger generation now have a greater sexual freedom but she wondered if sometimes it means they are a lot more indiscriminate than they might be. "In my day," she said. "I would only have sex with a man if I found him extremely attractive, these days, girls seem to choose them in much the same way as they might choose to suck on a boiled sweet."