ONCE AGAIN WEDNESDAY: Mary Anne Clarke by Jo Manning – Part One

”Mary Anne, Mary Anne,
Cook the slut in a frying-pan”
— Sung in the streets of London following the fall from grace of the courtesan Mary Anne Clarke
The Grand old Duke of York he had ten thousand men

He marched them up to the top of the hill

And he marched them down again.

When they were up, they were up

And when they were down, they were down

And when they were only halfway up

They were neither up nor down
— Old children’s nursery rhyme associated with Prince Frederick, Duke of York, in the early 19th century
When I was researching My Lady Scandalous, the biography I was to write of the royal courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, I came across tales of many other royal (and non-royal) courtesans of the era. One of the most colorful and controversial was the mistress of King George III’s brother, Prince Frederick Augustus, the grand old Duke of York. Her name was Mary Anne Clarke.
Portrait of Mary Anne Clarke, by Adam Buck, 1803. Though not widely known these days, the Irish-born Buck was an accomplished miniaturist painter and a favorite of the aristocracy. He had a studio in Soho at the time this was painted.

What fascinated me was not just that Mary Anne Clarke was involved in one of the major political scandals of the late 18th-early 19th centuries, involving the sale of army commissions for her private gain, but that she was the direct ancestor of the popular novelist Daphne Du Maurier. She was Du Maurier’s great-great-grandmother!
Du Maurier has always been one of my favorite popular writers. The woman was a brilliant storyteller, as evidenced by the remarkable novels Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, and the short stories The Birds and Don’t Look Back.
All of these have been made into excellent, classic films; my particular favorite the most recent retelling of the uber-romantic Frenchman’s Creek, starring Tara Fitzgerald and Anthony Delon. Sorry, I have to digress with this photograph:
I’ve been here! The Frenchman’s Creek of the book title, on the Helford River, near the town of Helford, Cornwall, at low tide
And who among us can forget the evocative opening line of the suspenseful gothic novel Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed of Manderley again…” as the camera lingers on the ruins of a once-gorgeous mansion shrouded in the flowing mists of sad remembrance and regret. Unforgettable.
But did you know that Daphne Du Maurier also wrote biographies? She wrote a biography of her father, the acclaimed actor-manager Gerald Du Maurier, Gerald: A Portrait, shortly after his death in 1934. Her 1937 family biography, The Du Mauriers, tells the story of a famously talented and eccentric group of actors, novelists, and artists who were descended from Mary Anne Clarke and, on the other side, from the marriage of her daughter Ellen into a family of French émigré glassblowers, the Busson du Mauriers. (She also wrote separately about this French family in The Glass-Blowers, published in 1963.)
In 1954, the fictionalized biography of Mary Anne Clarke, simply titled Mary Anne, was published. The opening pages of this novel immediately draw the reader into the story. It is good fictional writing at its best. Though the opening below is a long passage, not one word is wasted, and the reader immediately learns all one needs to know about the flamboyant creature Mary Anne Clarke:
“Years later, when she had gone and was no longer part of their lives, the thing they remembered about her was her smile. Coloring and features were indistinct, hazy in memory. The eyes, surely, were blue – but they could have been green or grey. And the hair, knotted in the Grecian fashion piled high on top of the head in curls, might have been chestnut or light brown. The nose was anything but Grecian – that was a certainty, for it pointed to heaven; and the actual shape of the mouth had never seemed important – not at the time, or now.
“The essence of what had been lay in the smile. It began at the left corner of the mouth and hovered momentarily, mocking without discrimination those she loved most – including her own family – and those she despised. And, while they waited uneasily, expexting a blast of sarcasm or the snub direct, the smile spread to the eyes, transfiguring the whole face, lighting it to gaiety. Reprieved, they basked in the warmth and shared the folly, and there was no intellectual pose in the laugh that followed, ribald, riotous, cockney, straight from the belly.
“This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth re
mained, and the love of living.”
Part Two Coming Soon!

Originally published on October 22, 2010

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