This is the story of Daphne du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke, born into a poor family in the East End of London, married at fifteen and the mother of four children by the time she was twenty-three. Mary Anne became a notorious courtesan and mistress of the Duke of York and was later the central figure in a political corruption scandal, the repercussions of which ultimately led to her downfall.
According to Lisa Hilton, who wrote the introduction to the 2003 Virago edition, du Maurier did not much care for Mary Anne. She wrote that it was “lacking in human interest and reads like a newspaper report”. To some extent du Maurier was right. While it’s not really devoid of human interest, neither Mary Anne nor most of the other characters are particularly sympathetic. Although what motivates Mary Anne to behave in the way she does is understandable, it does not make her likeable. Further, much of the latter part of the book reads like transcripts from the parliamentary inquiry at which she gave evidence and the various trials in which she was involved.
The outcome of this is an uneven tone. Part of the book reads like a novel and part of it reads like a biography. The writing is excellent, but the two parts of the book feel quite separate. It may be the lawyer in me, but I found the parliamentary inquiry and the trials incredibly interesting. However, I really would have liked a bibliography or at the very least an author’s note discussing the primary sources and explaining what is fact and what is fiction. What I would have liked even more, I think, is an actual biography, rather than historical fiction. If du Maurier had written a biography about her ancestor, this might have been a much better book. It could have been the Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire of its time.
Still, I don’t regret the time I’ve spent reading Mary Anne. In spite of its weaknesses, the book still demonstrates du Maurier’s consummate skill as a writer. She was able to create a sense of place and time without resorting to archaic vocabulary. The central characters – for all they are mostly unlikeable - are vividly realised and never feel like transplants from du Maurier’s time. There were also moments of wonderfully written sly humour.
For me, this was a 3-1/2 star read. It gets half a star because I found the content about the parliamentary inquiry and the legal system so very interesting. Another buddy read with my friend Jemidar.