Mary Anne Clark is shown as an early feminist in a preface to this book by Lisa Hilton. Many women have been asserting for their rights ever since, well, our Stone Age sisters. They were depicted as Overreachers or Bad Women in their times. Modern age is inclined to view them with more sympathetic eyes.
In Regency England, it was hard for women to get along unless they were provided for by rich fathers or husbands. Mary Anne Clark, born in a poor London household had no prospects. Her father was a proofreader for a pamphlet publisher. As imagined by Du Maurier, Mary Anne caught the ropes of the trade at a very early age. Her step-father, Farquhar, was often drunk. That is when Mary Anne stepped in by doing the work for him.
In addition to precocious reading skills, Mary Anne was also very beautiful. She caught the eye of her step-father's employer and he paid for her schooling. He had an eye on her for himself. But Mary Anne fell in love with and married Joseph Clarke. Mary Anne had reasons to believe that Joseph was rich. His father, alas, disowned him for his wayward behaviour and Joseph could not work at his chosen trade for long. He was too drunk most times and simply not inclined to work.
Soon, Mary Anne was left with four children and no means to raise them. This is when she shed her scruples and chose to be an escort to well heeled gentlemen.
Circumstances and a shadowy gentleman called Will Ogilvie brought her to the attention of the Duke of York. For some years, she became the mistress of a Prince. She used her influence with the Prince to provide favors to several people and got paid for it. As Will Ogilvie tells her:
This country has been run on graft since the Norman conquest. From the highest Bishop down to the lowest low-paid clerk, we're all in the same business.
Things get bad very soon when the Duke finds that her side business, which he has abetted in so far, as he is in debt, could be harmful for him. He drops her like a hot potato. Mary Anne is stung to the quick and aided by some enemies of the Duke makes things very difficult for him.
Mary Anne Clarke earned a lot of notoriety in her lifetime due to her libelous court cases and the book she wrote, The Rival Princes, that alleged that the Duke of York's brother was responsible for bringing him down. But the truth is, she was just struggling for her rights in times that granted few to women. She tried to make her living in the only way women could be allowed, by being kept by rich men.
Daphne Du Maurier gives a lot of color to her life. Her early days, her married life are imagined beautifully. How Mary Anne tries to sponge off the rich relatives of her husband in an attempt to live well and bring up her children properly. Her last spat with the Duke is because she wants her son to be commissioned in the Army as the Duke had promised to her once.
Daphne thought her novel dull and reading like a documentary. But the fact is, that the court scenes are very well described and reminded me so much of Charles Dickens. Maybe the verbatim reproduction of an open letter she wrote to a gentleman who reneged on his promise was not required.
How could Daphne have passed up a chance to write about a great-grandmother who was so notorious that she has a wikipedia page to herself.