31 March 2020

Isolation reading: The Camomile Lawn

Posted by Gayle Lazda

‘I should’ve thought,’ said James, ‘that in the war, with the bombing and so on, there wasn’t much time for private life.’

‘That’s where you are wrong,’ said Polly. ‘We all lived intensely. We did things we would never have done otherwise. It was a very happy time.’

There’s a certain section of the right wing press/Twitter that love to compare everything to What We Did in the War, whether the person doing the comparing lived through the War or not. Covid-19, you see, is just like the War, and we didn’t beat the Nazis by shutting down the nation; no, by god, we stood up to them! Or something like that.

Well, I for one know that Covid-19 is nothing like the War. How do I know? Because I just reread Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, that’s how. This reread was inspired by listening to the latest episode of Caroline O’Donoghue’s podcast Sentimental Garbage, in which she discusses Wesley’s wartime drama with Kate Young. It was recorded before Coronavirus came along, and contains the phrase ‘I just feel like a national emergency would make everyone kinder and cooler.’ As it turns out, not all national emergencies are the same.

The main way in which Covid-19 is nothing like the War is that in the War – if Mary Wesley’s account is to be believed – literally everybody was sleeping with everyone else, whereas in this crisis, that’s very much against the rules. The famous London Review Bookshop Infographic Department has attempted to visually untangle the mess of relationships in the novel in the diagram below. This only accounts for named characters; there are, especially in Calypso’s case, an army of unnamed Allied personnel that could also be included.

(There is one part of The Camomile Lawn that screams Coronavirus, and that is when Uncle Richard catches pneumonia while trying to rescue his claret stockpile from the bombing, but this is the only exception to the general rule.)


The Camomile Lawn is published by Vintage Classics, priced £8.99.

Sentimental Garbage is a podcast about chick-lit classics and why they're so often overlooked. The Camomile Lawn episode is full of spoilers, so I recommend reading the book first if you haven't already.

PSA: the Channel 4 adaptation of The Camomile Lawn is currently available to watch for free on All4. You're welcome.