The Camomile Lawn

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The Camomile Lawn
First edition (UK)
Author Mary Wesley
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Macmillan (UK)
Summit Books (US)
Publication date
29 March 1984
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 304 pp
ISBN 0-333-36892-4
OCLC 59093668

The Camomile Lawn is a 1984 novel by Mary Wesley about a family holiday in Cornwall in the last summer of peace before World War II. When the family are reunited for a funeral nearly fifty years later,[1] it brings home to them how much the war acted as a catalyst for their emotional liberation. The title refers to a fragrant camomile lawn stretching down to the cliffs in the garden of their aunt's house.


Mary Wesley first began writing The Camomile Lawn after the death of her second husband left her destitute. She finished writing it in 1983, and was convinced to publish it by her editor James Hale. Parts of the book were based on Mary Wesley's early life. The house in Cornwall was based on Boskenna, the seat of the Paynter family, where Wesley stayed as a child.[2] After a coast guard fell to his death near Boskenna, Wesley suspected foul play and created a fictionalised version for her novel. Like Polly, Wesley worked for military intelligence during World War II. The character of Oliver was based on her former boyfriend Lewis Clive while Max was based on Paul Ziegler (brother of Heinz Otto Ziegler), one of her friends whose parents died in The Holocaust.[3] Additionally, Mary Wesley's sister quarrelled with her over the depiction of Helena and Richard Cuthbertson in the book, as she believed that they were based on their parents.[4]


In August 1939, Oliver, Calypso, Polly and Walter are visiting their Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard Cuthbertson, and their 10-year-old cousin Sophy who has been taken in by Helena and Uncle Richard. They are often visited by the twin sons of the local rector, as well as by Max and Monika, a Jewish refugee couple from Austria, whose only son, Pauli, is in a concentration camp, and who have been taken in by the rector. Young Sophy is delighted with the arrival of her cousins, especially Oliver. She is determined to run 'The Terror Run', a cliff path that the cousins race along at full moon, along with the grown ups. However, during a daylight practice run, the local coastguard exposes himself to her.

Returning from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, a depressed and disenchanted Oliver has a changed outlook on life although he still retains his crush on Calypso. Calypso, knowing that she is not what Oliver is truly seeking, is determined to make the most of her beauty and marry a rich man.

Sensible, intelligent, practical Polly is observant and eventually joins the War Office. It is implied that she is working on War Intelligence. Her brother Walter joins the Navy.

TV adaptation[edit]

The Camomile Lawn
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of episodes originally aired as 4 episodes, but 5 on US DVD release
Original network
Original release 5 March (1992-03-05) – 2 April 1992 (1992-04-02)

The 1992 adaptation was independently produced by Glenn Wilhide and Sophie Belhetchet at ZED Ltd for Channel 4, and directed by Peter Hall. It was adapted from the novel by Ken Taylor and had a notable cast of actors.

Felicity Kendal played the scatty, snobbish Aunt Helena Cuthbertson, with Paul Eddington as her husband Richard. Jennifer Ehle played the "mercenary" young Calypso, with her real-life mother, actress Rosemary Harris, playing Calypso in old age.[5] Tara Fitzgerald played the part of young Polly and Virginia McKenna appeared as the older Polly. Rebecca Hall, the eight-year-old daughter of director Peter Hall, was cast as young Sophy;[6] older Sophy is played by Claire Bloom. Toby Stephens plays young, serious Oliver and Richard Johnson is the older Oliver. Film locations were at Broom Parc House, Veryan, Cornwall, and Portloe, Cornwall.[7] The theme tune for the TV adaptation, by Stephen Edwards, is based on Ravel's String Quartet in F major, which is also rehearsed, by Max (Oliver Cotton) and his colleagues.

Episode list (DVD release)[edit]

# Title Directed by Written by Original air date
1 "Episode One" Peter Hall Ken Taylor 5 March 1992 (1992-03-05)
The family gathers at the camomile lawn in summer 1939. Oliver returns from the Spanish Civil War and woos Calypso who rejects him, saying she is looking for a rich man. Sophy has a traumatic experience and the family meets classical musician Max and his wife Monika.
2 "Episode Two" Peter Hall Ken Taylor 12 March 1992 (1992-03-12)
As the war begins, Calypso finds a rich husband much to Oliver's dismay. Sophy is sent away to boarding school and Helena begins an affair. Polly obtains a position in the War Office. She and Calypso take advantage of their new-found freedom to embark on a series of sexual liaisons.
3 "Episode Three" Peter Hall Ken Taylor 19 March 1992 (1992-03-19)
Oliver is disappointed when reality does not live up to his fantasies. Calypso receives a surprise and Helena continues her affair. Sophy tells Walter her terrible secret.
4 "Episode Four" Peter Hall Ken Taylor 26 March 1992 (1992-03-26)
Tragedy strikes when a family member is killed in action. Hector is reported missing and Richard comes to London, disturbing Helena's daily life. Meanwhile, Polly is unable to choose between two men and Sophy witnesses the barbarities of war first hand.
5 "Episode Five" Peter Hall Ken Taylor 2 April 1992 (1992-04-02)
40 years later the family gathers at the Camomile Lawn for a funeral, finally resolving Oliver's complicated love life, and Polly and Calypso's relationships with their children.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Glendinning, Victoria (2 June 2006). "End of innocence". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  2. ^ Marnham, Patrick (2006). Wild Mary: A Life of Mary Wesley. Chatto & Windus. p. 42. ISBN 0701179910. 
  3. ^ Marnham, Patrick (2006). Wild Mary: A Life of Mary Wesley. Chatto & Windus. pp. 52, 251. ISBN 0701179910. 
  4. ^ Marnham, Patrick (2006). Wild Mary: A Life of Mary Wesley. Chatto & Windus. p. 252. ISBN 0701179910. 
  5. ^ Kehr, Dave (12 July 2000). "Mother, Daughter Share Role". South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Cripps, Charlotte (15 July 2004). "Rebecca Hall: My art belongs to Daddy". The Independent. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  7. ^ "If you're a fan of The Darling Buds of May...". Toronto Star. 21 August 1993. p. K.5. 

External links[edit]