Siepmann [née Farmar], Mary Aline [other married name Mary Aline Eady, Lady Swinfen; pseud. Mary Wesley] (1912–2002), novelist
by Patrick Marnham

Siepmann [née Farmar], Mary Aline [other married name Mary Aline Eady, Lady Swinfen; pseud. Mary Wesley] (1912–2002), novelist, was born on 24 June 1912, at Red Gables, Englefield Green, Egham, Surrey, the younger daughter and youngest of the three children of Harold Mynors Farmar (1878–1961), an officer in the Lancashire fusiliers, and his wife, Violet Hyacinth, née Dalby (1885?–1971), youngest daughter of Sir William Bartlett Dalby, a leading aural surgeon. From an early age she was convinced that she was unwanted—her mother had told her that she should have been a boy—and she felt more loved by her nanny, Hilda Scott, and by Lady Dalby, her maternal grandmother. The latter had been born Hyacinthe Wellesley and was a direct descendant of Richard Wellesley, Marquess Wellesley, elder brother of the first duke of Wellington. The abrupt departure of Nanny Scott overshadowed Mary's infancy; she said that she ‘never felt secure again’ (The Independent), and she became a rebellious child who was educated at home by a succession of sixteen foreign governesses. As a result she spoke good Italian and French and some German but always had to count on her fingers. When she was aged fifteen her parents went to India with her elder sister, Susan, leaving her in a ‘home school’ for two years in the company of a pet bullfinch. These deficiencies in her formal education gave her a lifelong inferiority complex. From her early days she had wanted to write but for many years she destroyed everything she finished.

After being presented at court at the age of eighteen Mary Farmar went to work as a volunteer in a London soup kitchen and became friends with left-wing contemporaries such as the barrister John Platts-Mills and the old Etonian banker and Labour borough councillor Lewis Clive; they encouraged her to enrol as an extramural student of international politics at the London School of Economics. Clive (who was killed in 1938 fighting on the Ebro with the International Brigade) fell in love and asked Mary to marry him. But she was bored by political meetings and on 23 January 1937—needing to get away from her parents—she married a wealthy young peer, Charles Swinfen (Carol) Eady, second Baron Swinfen (1904–1977), barrister, who had inherited the fortune his father Charles Swinfen Eady, first Baron Swinfen, had made at the chancery bar, prior to becoming master of the rolls. For three years the new Lady Swinfen enjoyed a privileged existence, attending the coronation of King George VI, driving her husband's Lagonda, and travelling on the continent. Although, as she subsequently complained, the marriage was not notable for sexual passion, a child, Roger, was born on 14 December 1938.

The course of Mary Eady's life changed on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 when a family friend recruited her into a section of MI5 that was engaged in breaking German military ciphers. Her prediction that Denmark was to be invaded, one day before the invasion took place, was dismissed by a superior officer as ‘a lot of balls’ (Daily Telegraph). When her unit was moved from St James's Park to Bletchley Park in September 1940, to work on Enigma decrypts, Mary, by now pregnant with her second child, resigned and went to live at Boskenna in west Cornwall, the seat of Colonel Camborne Paynter. A second son, Toby, was born on 28 February 1941. Handing over her two infants to Colonel Paynter's cook, Mary—who was by now separated from her husband—started to lead the uninhibited and promiscuous social life that later became the subject of The Camomile Lawn (1984), one of her most successful novels. She once said ‘War is very erotic, people had love affairs they would not otherwise have had’ (Toronto Globe and Mail, 9 May 1995). Colonel Paynter, who was an accomplished linguist, kept open house for pilots and other officers, including allied émigrés and SOE agents, and among her friends were the Gaullist intelligence chief André Dewavrin (‘Colonel Passy’), the exiled Czech leader Jan Masaryk, and his shadow minister of finance, Heinz Ziegler, who wanted to marry her. Her frequent visits to London and the Ritz Hotel during the blitz and the V1 and V2 attacks of 1944 and 1945 gave her material that she would later use in her fiction, and she remained in contact with intelligence colleagues throughout the war.

In 1945 Carol Eady divorced his wife on grounds of desertion. This divorce, during which Mary's brother Hugh Farmar appeared as a witness against her and Lord Swinfen was awarded custody of their two children, caused a rift between Mary and her family that never properly healed. Shortly afterwards she started to live with a married lover, the journalist and playwright Eric Otto Siepmann (1903–1970), youngest son of the celebrated Clifton schoolmaster Otto Siepmann. In 1949, Eric Siepmann was offered the post of Berlin correspondent by Ian Fleming, foreign manager of the Sunday Times, and Mary, who had by then changed her name by deed poll to Siepmann, accompanied him. But the job did not last and their life together was overshadowed by the hostility of Siepmann's second wife, Phyllis, a champion ski-racer and bluestocking, who hounded them wherever they went. Siepmann eventually obtained a divorce on grounds of cruelty and he and Mary married on 23 April 1952. Their only child, William, was born on 8 December 1953.

Eric Siepmann was ‘a drunk, but not an alcoholic’ according to his wife (private information), and in 1954, following an indiscretion at a diplomatic reception in Damascus, he lost another job, so he and Mary went to live in a remote farmhouse at Thornworthy on Dartmoor, determined to make their fortune from literature. At this time, their circle of friends included Nancy Mitford, Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, Patrick Kinross, and the Catholic novelists Antonia White and Emily Holmes Coleman. Antonia White acted as godmother when Mary and Eric were received into the Roman Catholic church in 1956. Despite Siepmann's intellectual brilliance, his writing remained unpublished and Mary started to teach English to visiting pupils from France and Germany. On 10 January 1970 Siepmann, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died, leaving his widow and their sixteen-year-old son with no pension or other means of support. She said that when he died ‘I felt as though I had been cut in half’ (Image Magazine, April 1990). To make ends meet she took a job as a French teacher in a preparatory school but lost it when the headmaster discovered that she had never sat an exam in her life. Subsequently she minded an antique shop for friends and sold her knitting. During the early years of her widowhood, her life was complicated by poverty and a family feud over an inheritance that eventually led to the permanent estrangement of her eldest son. In later life she cared for her own nanny and her children's nanny, both of whom lived to be 100, while cheerfully admitting that she had grown to loathe her mother.

Shortly before Siepmann's death Mary had written two children's books, Speaking Terms and The Sixth Seal, both of which were published under the pseudonym Mary Wesley in 1969, to no great effect. But this slight success gave her the confidence she required to continue. It was in these extreme circumstances that she started a novel about a widow who had decided to ‘jump the queue’ (commit suicide). When it was finished she sent Jumping the Queue to seven publishers. It was repeatedly rejected until James Hale at Macmillan saw the possibilities and published it in 1983. By that time Mary had been forced to sell her cottage on Dartmoor because she could no longer afford to repair her car and had moved into a small terrace house in Totnes, her nearest market town. Over the next fifteen years, displaying extraordinary energy and concentration, Mary Wesley became one of the most successful novelists in the country. She published nine more titles that sold over three million copies and won her six-figure advances. Her consistent themes came from her own experience of war and families at war. In The Camomile Lawn (1984) she set out to establish an uncomfortable truth that for many survivors the blitz had been a form of liberation. She returned to the wartime setting in Not That Sort of Girl (1987), A Sensible Life (1990), and Part of the Furniture (1997). In her third novel, Harnessing Peacocks (1985), she introduced another recurrent theme, dysfunctional family life, the violence that can lie beneath its surface, and the effect this has on young women struggling to achieve their independence. All ten of her books were notable for the sexual energy displayed by her heroines, both young and old, and marked by a black humour that recalled Saki or the early Evelyn Waugh and was most apparent in A Dubious Legacy (1992).

Mary Wesley proved to be adept at publicizing her own work on the radio and in press interviews, quickly mastering the effective contrast between her cut-glass manners and her loathing of the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Her feelings towards Thatcherism were influenced by the misadventures of her youngest son, who spent a period of his life in a London squat prior to retraining as a tube train driver, and she carried a printed card in her handbag (inspired by the organ donor card) called the Thatchcard which read, ‘Under no circumstances whatsoever do I wish to be visited in hospital by Margaret Thatcher’ (Mary Wesley collection, Boston, box 7, fol. 1). In interviews she became a mistress of devastating one-liners, ‘Fuck is an old English word’ (Daily Telegraph); ‘I love my children … I'm delighted to see them and delighted to see them go’ (Sunday Times, 25 Sept 1988); ‘I have never been to bed with anyone I didn't love—or at least find attractive’ (Daily Mail, 8 May 1993).

With Wesley's huge popular success came critical acclaim. Her work was compared with that of Elizabeth Bowen and Muriel Spark; she was praised in the Times Literary Supplement in 1992 for creating ‘a black comedy of English manners’, for her ability to rework the classic themes of the fairy tale such as the evil parent and the abandoned heroine, for her perceptiveness about girlhood, and for the images of childhood joy and misery that were never marred by sentimentality about relationships between parents and children. She was made an honorary fellow of the London School of Economics (1994), appointed CBE (1995), and elected FRSL (1997). As she became richer she gave much of her wealth away to friends or strangers, saying that she could never forget the days when she had been too poor to buy a postage stamp. She died of cancer at her home, Bogan Cottage, North Street, Totnes, on 30 December 2002, ‘in her own bed’, as her death notice put it. On 3 January 2003, following a Roman Catholic funeral held in the Anglican Church of St Mary and introduced by a recording of the dawn chorus, she was buried in a red Chinese lacquer coffin that had once served as her coffee table, beside her second husband, in the graveyard of Buckfast Abbey. She was survived by her three sons.

PATRICK MARNHAM

Sources  

H. M. Farmar, memoir, c.1930 · E. Siepmann, Confessions of a nihilist (1955) · M. Siepmann, ‘The fruits of my follies’, 1958, and ‘Untitled memoir’, 2001, priv. coll. · M. Wesley, Part of the scenery (2002) · Mary Wesley collection, Boston University, Mugar Memorial Library · M. Siepmann, private papers, priv. coll. · E. Siepmann, private papers, priv. coll. · Farmar and Dalby family correspondence and records, priv. coll. · Tessa Sayle Agency archives, London · The Independent (31 Dec 2002) · The Times (1 Jan 2003) · Daily Telegraph (1 Jan 2003) · The Guardian (1 Jan 2003) · P. Marnham, Wild mary: the life of Mary Wesley (2005) · Burke, Gen. GB · Burke, Peerage · WW (2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. certs. · transcripts of divorce proceedings, 1945 [Carol Swinfen, Mary Farmar]; 1951–2 [Eric Siepmann, Phyllis Morris] · d. cert.

Archives  

Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University · Tessa Sayle Agency, London  

FILM

 

BFINA, ‘Mary Wesley: not that sort of girl’, A. Scales (director), BBC1, 8 May 1989 · BFINA, Mavis catches up with …, Z. Hardy (director), Thames Television, 16 Jan 1991 · BFINA, The third wave, P. Bartlett (producer), Channel 4, 21 April 1992 · BFINA, In with Mavis, P. Bartlett (producer), Channel 4, 28 Aug 1992 · BFINA, current affairs footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, Conversation piece, interview with S. MacGregor, BBC Radio 4, 22 Dec 1988, B3711/3 · BL NSA, interview with S. Lawley, B7642/01 · BL NSA, documentary recordings


Likenesses  

photographs, 1993–5, Rex Features, London · photographs, 1995–7, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency, London · M. Chambers, acrylic on board, repro. in M. Riley and T. Riley, Picture me now (2001), 31 · G. Galvin, photograph, repro. in Observer Magazine (24 Jan 1993), 51 · X. Mosley, charcoal on handmade paper, repro. in M. Riley and T. Riley, Picture me now (2001), 30 · K. Sayer, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · J. Sutton, bronze, repro. in M. Riley and T. Riley, Picture me now (2001), 30 · J. Sutton, wax cast from plaster head, priv. coll. · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £75,000: probate, 2 July 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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Mary Aline Siepmann (1912–2002): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/88714