Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier (1954)

Mary Anne is a novelisation of the life of Daphne Du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke (1776?-1852). It is easy to see why Du Maurier chose to write about  Mary Anne; the bare facts of her life are full of novelistic potential. Mary Anne was born in Chancery Lane in 1776, of uncertain parentage; her father or step-father was a ‘compositor’ or type-setter. In 1791 she is believed to have eloped with a Joseph Clarke, only marrying three years and two children later, in 1794. Then, nearly ten years later, she became the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York (1763-1827). She lived in a large house in Gloucester Place in London, entertained extravagantly, and despite her allowance from the Duke, was continually in debt. The Duke, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, had the power to give commissions, and Mary Anne let it be known that she could use her influence to obtain commissions and preferments. After three years the relationship between Mary Ann and the Duke broke down, but, in Daphne Du Maurier’s account, the whole of the rest of Mary Anne’s life was lived in the shadow of this, her great time of love, glamour and influence. She was a witness in several court cases where different political factions tried to discredit the Duke for their own purposes – Mary Anne’s purpose was always to get more money to maintain her extravagant life.

Mary Anne is great fun, and the character is lovingly drawn. Du Maurier begins the novel with the men who loved Mary Anne recalling her:

The essence of what had been lay in the smile. It began in the left corner of the mouth and hovered momentarily, mocking without discrimination those she loved most – including her own family – and those she despised. And while they waited uneasily, expecting a blast of sarcasm or the snub direct, the smile spread to the eyes, transfiguring the whole face, lighting it to gaiety. Reprieved, they basked in the warmth and shared the folly, and there was no intellectual pose in the laugh that followed, ribald, riotous, cockney, straight from the belly. (11)

At first I was really rooting for Mary Anne, as she grows up, smart and street-wise in the alleys of Clerkenwell. You cheer for her as she single-handedly keeps her family afloat when her step-father is unable to work, audaciously doing his copy-editing herself. You cheer again when she outsmarts those men who try to prey on her as she becomes an attractive teenager, and then worry as she enters a clearly doomed relationship with the lazy and drunken Joseph Clarke. It is marriage to Joseph that changes and hardens Mary Anne. He lets her down, time and again, until he is an alcoholic wreck and love is dead. She leaves him, and decides on a new career: prostitution (albeit with rich, high status men):

“I’ve taken the plunge,” she thought, “and there’s no returning. I’m out for what I can get, and I’ll see that I get it. I’ll pay back in kind, I won’t cheat, I won’t be dishonest. No one will claim I haven’t earned my money. Value given for value received. It’s one trade like another, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker. We’ve all got to live.” (98)

When she becomes the Duke of York’s mistress it is like hitting the jackpot – hurrah! But the reader, unlike Mary Anne, is all too aware that it cannot last for ever. When the Duke leaves her, Mary Anne cannot accept it, and when she finally does accept that he is not coming back, she cannot accept a lifestyle lesser than what she had become accustomed to with him. Du Maurier gives a sympathetic but unsentimental depiction of Mary Anne in her later life: ‘the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper’, ‘the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue’ (11). Alas, I lost sympathy with her as the novel continued – if only she would stop spending money! It could only end in tears, and it does.

It is quite a long novel, and I did find the accounts of the court cases and political jostlings starting to drag. They are very fully described, and I wonder if Du Maurier novelistic techniques were inhibited by an attempt to be true to the historical record? She gives us rather more detail than we need, I think. Still, this is a good novel, and I would recommend it.

The novel is dedicated both to Mary Anne, and to the actress Gertrude Lawrence, ‘who was to have acted the part on the stage’, but died in September 1952.

2 thoughts on “Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier (1954)

  1. As a mere male, I am interested in the feminine perspective of a female living “on her wits” as it were. It seems unjust that a woman can have two bites of the cherry – by selling herself, and then by selling (or threatening to sell) her story. It is good to see that another female can see that this is not such a good idea as it seems. No doubt this male view of the situation will attract some comment, but it is (or was ) not an option open to the male.Then again, I doubt if a male could tackle the subject competently.
    However, that apart, Daphne Du Maurier is one of the most interesting authors I have come across. Every book is different. She never became typecast as an author in any particular genre, and her work is very thought-provoking. Her work ranges from the historical romance of Jamaica Inn and Frenchman’s Creek, through psychological thrillers such as Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, to what is almost science fiction in The House on The Strand and The Flight of the Falcon. I suppose the common denominator is suspense – after all, she wrote the short story The Birds, from which Hitchcock made his famous film. I have not read this particular book, but I have read several other novels and other books by her, and I have always enjoyed them. I believe she deserves a much higher standing than she currently enjoys; perhaps it is because of her diversity that she has not enjoyed that recognition. Nevertheless, I think that, in a few years’ time people will read her books afresh and accord her that recognition. Why not be part of that movement; check her output at your library, and settle down to something good.

  2. This is from a female perspective, and so naturally I would support a strong female, she who knows her mind and knows what she wants.I had read Mary Anne when I was 14 year of age, and Rebecca after a decade from then. Daphne to me seemed strong, independent and a gripping writer. As far as any question of plagiarism goes it is not always convincing, for many a time people in their own individual world seem to think like another. It is the presentation that matters that has to be very unique. Mary Anne being a historical fictional character becomes more interesting. As for the male character they do seem lost and annoyed before a forceful female! Because that is not the order of the day since the world started.
    For me I have an original line, penned by me, ‘she who waded through streams and woods…and harboured no rooks…’

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