The last day I was at my library branch, March 19, I happened to check out Daphne Du Maurier’s 1954 novel Mary Anne, on a whim, because I was in the mood to read another of her books after loving Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel so much. Little did I know that would be my last day at the library until at least July (although who knows anything at this point, really?) I’m awfully glad I picked it up because it enabled me to easily participate in Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week blog event.
She set men’s hearts on fire and scandalized a country.
An ambitious, stunning, and seductive young woman, Mary Anne finds the single most rewarding way to rise above her station: she will become the mistress to a royal duke. In doing so, she provokes a scandal that rocks Regency England.
A fictionalized account of Du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, this is a sweeping historical saga that I was easily absorbed in. Growing up poor in London, aware that her mother had once enjoyed a better standard of living in her previous marriage, Mary Anne was determined not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. She is aware from an early age that women are dependent upon the protection and productivity of men for their lives. But she is intelligent, and can read, and uses those two strengths as her first way of bettering her circumstances.
Injustice – there was always injustice between men and women. Men made the laws to suit themselves. Men did as they pleased, and women suffered for it. There was only one way to beat them, and that was to match your wits against theirs and come out the winner. But when, and how, and where?
After a disappointing first marriage to an alcoholic, when she was very young and naive, Mary Anne saw herself repeating patterns of her mother’s disastrous marriage, and she wanted to do anything she could not to follow her path. A relative of an old school friend with connections to the Royal Family offers her a way out: a great beauty, she can be a high class prostitute.
This new life was easy. No cares and no worries, and, the first shock to pride overcome, the next step was simple. Men were simple, straightforward, direct, and grateful for little. Amusing to talk to at supper, but generally tipsy. After nine years with Joseph the last was rally no hardship – a few clumsy embraces, followed by snores on a pillow. The snores of a peer grated less than the snores of a mason, and a peer was lavish with presents, which tipped the scales higher. The point was, she made her own choice and took whom she wanted. It wasn’t a question of waiting, and hoping for callers. Two dozen cards in the mirror, and all invitations, so what was the best proposition? It was as simple as that.
Du Maurier writes sympathetically of Mary Anne, perhaps unsurprisingly. The character is not easy to love, in that she is obstinate, brassy, very pragmatic, not very “nice,” but those same qualities are the ones that help her rise above her station in life and keep fighting for what she wanted for herself and her family. She is a real fire-cracker, a force of nature, using whatever means she had (her intellect, her body, and her sexuality) to gain a better standard of living for her children.She really does love her children and try to do well by them.
I liked this novel, but didn’t love it the same way I loved Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel. Maybe it’s because no character in Mary Anne felt as fully realized or as interesting and ambiguous as the characters in the other novels. I don’t know if Du Maurier felt constrained in some way by writing about people who actually existed, it’s possible. The last one hundred pages or so were so filled with legal proceedings that I skimmed pages because I just didn’t find that part as interesting. And the very end of the book felt rushed to me. But those quibbles aside, I am glad that I read this and still would recommend it to fans of historical fiction or Du Maurier. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐