The Camomile Lawn, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Behind the large house, the fragrant camomile lawn stretches down to the Cornish cliffs.

Here, in the dizzying heat of August 1939, five cousins have gathered at their aunt's house for their annual ritual of a holiday.

For most of them it is the last summer of their youth, with the heady exhilarations and freedoms of lost innocence, as well as the fears of the coming war. The Camomile Lawn moves from Cornwall to London and back again, over the years, telling the stories of the cousins, their family and their friends, united by shared losses and lovers, by family ties and the absurd conditions imposed by war as their paths cross and recross over the years.

Mary Wesley presents an extraordinarily vivid and lively picture of wartime London: the rationing, imaginatively circumvented; the fallen houses; the parties, the new-found comforts of sex, the desperate humour of survival - all of it evoked with warmth, clarity and stunning wit. And through it all, the cousins and their friends try to hold on to the part of themselves that laughed and played dangerous games on that camomile lawn.


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I have the 1992 miniseries on DVD, but hadn't thought to read Mary Wesley's novel until I found a copy in the library. In praise of the adaptation, there is little difference between the printed and screen versions, and I couldn't help but imagine Jennifer Ehle as Calypso, Felicity Kendal as Helena, and that guy with the bushy eyebrows as Max while reading.The novel itself is a quick read, mostly dialogue but with some insightful statements ('She felt they had briefly exchanged the truth and grown closer') and vivid descriptions of London during the Second World War ('She walked up to the Row, shabby and sad, robbed of its railings'). Calypso, Polly, Walter, Oliver and Sophy are young cousins who spend every summer at their uncle's clifftop house in Cornwall, until the fateful declaration of war in 1939. Then the story moves to London. Everybody seems to be sleeping with everyone else, irregardless of ties family or marriage, because 'we all lived intensely' and 'if we were in love it was acute'. I found some of the female characters - the superficial Calypso, and independent Polly - more sympathetic than others, and the male characters not at all, apart from maybe Hector. The whole cast is very middle class and difficult to relate to, but great fun to read about. Ironically, the only let down in the whole book is the 'modern day' narrative frame, with everyone meeting at the old house in Cornwall for a funeral, which I found rather contrived and boring compared to the free love and tangled relationships of the past.An enjoyable vignette of another time and place, and I will definitely read more of Mary Wesley's writing.

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