Daphne du Maurier is best known for Rebecca, and Rebecca is all I knew her for before I began this book. But Mary Anne is rather a different work – the defining creepiness of Rebecca is nowhere to be seen – and absolutely entertaining and page-turning as well.
The historical figure Mary Anne is an ancestor of du Maurier’s, so this novel is based in fact. Mary Anne grows up as a girl in relative poverty in Regency London. At a young age she begins to take control of her own destiny, finding work and a benefactor, earning herself a few years’ formal education. She decides very early in life that success – money – security – are her aim above all else; she will not grow up to be poor in a London back alley like her mother. She marries young, unwisely and against all advice, a man whose claimed fortune quickly (and predictably) goes up in a puff of haughty perfumed smoke; and after a few years of unhappiness with a raging alcoholic, she takes her four children and escapes her marriage.
From here, Mary Anne begins trading on the commodity she finds at hand: her attractive self. She makes several lucrative liaisons, but none so great as her eventual relationship with His Royal Highness the Duke of York. When he tires of her and fails to support her and her family as promised, Mary Anne joins the opposition and takes HRH to court – thus becoming infamous, a symbol, a figure of notoriety, a whore or a heroine depending upon perspective.
The novel opens with the near-death musings of three men who loved Mary Anne most of their lives, their different perspectives on her and and their regrets. The rest of the story is told in a third-person voice that takes on Mary Anne’s perspective. This woman is complex, possesses a variety of virtues and flaws; she loves her children and is concerned about providing for them but doesn’t seem to do much mothering (and exposes them to her morally questionable lifestyle); she values material wealth almost above all else, but also fights for principles and for the benefits of others. She attracts great public attention and a great deal of love and admiration; even her detractors often find themselves drawn to her.
Mary Anne shares qualities with a great many iconic heroines. I rattled them off like mad as I read: her early industry to find work editing copy reminded me of Francie of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; her determination to do whatever it takes to avoid returning to poverty screamed of Scarlett from Gone With the Wind; her enterprising sale of herself recalled Moll Flanders, and her joyful discovery of her own body, wrought with troubles, brought to mind both Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary. By which I do not accuse du Maurier of copycatting. The hints of all these other classic heroines brought a richness and familiarity to Mary Anne that I appreciated.
At some 450 pages, this is not a small book, but it is a quick one! Mary Anne is engrossing; she holds the attention. And the pages turn: there is plentiful drama, and her future is in question repeatedly. Mary Anne is well-written, entertaining, and full of pathos. You will care what happens to the title character, and even to poor Bill Dowler. Daphne du Maurier scores again! Read her!