Mary Wesley and I usually get on like a house on fire – I’ve enjoyed eight of the ten novels she wrote for adults – but this wasn’t the case with the ninth, A Sensible Life, the story of Flora who we first meet as a 10 year old child on holidays in France, walking a dog on a beach, as observed by 15 year old Cosmo from the shore, but who we never really get to know in any profound way.
Flora’s parents have no time for her and in the way of Mary Wesley’s ‘orphans’ she soon finds herself observing the people around her, including Cosmo’s family, and becoming peripherally involved – which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but isn’t if you’re Mary Wesley – on an irregular basis.
The main problem I had with A Sensible Life was the way that Flora was treated as an object by most of the other characters – from her parents who palm her welfare off on to other people, and then send her to boarding school in England, to the two young men, Cosmo and Hubert, who foist their sexual attentions upon Flora aged 15 but ignore her otherwise, to Cosmo’s mother, who is threatened by Flora’s sexual power and deliberately neglects her welfare as a consequence. It was not only joyless reading but it also reflected badly on a culture that objectifies young women.
Problematically for the book, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this treatment of Flora. She is barely affected by others’ behaviour towards her and they in turn, do not grow or develop in any way over. Because nothing changes, there is no shape and no colour to the book, and no need for a resolution or climax, which, overall, makes for fairly pointless reading.
A Sensible Life is not one of Mary Wesley’s best.
A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Black Swan, 1990, 380 pages, personal copy.