Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mirror to a million teenagers: Monica Dickens’ Mariana

Oh no! I am feeling like a book blogger who has slept through her alarm, turned her face down into the warm pillow and lazily allowed for the languishing of good books. I have many excuses, but I won’t bore you with them: I am just late in posting. As many of you know Persephone Reading Week is a lovely event co-hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files. Despite the fact that it technically ended yesterday, this review of the Persephone Classic Mariana by Monica Dickens is my contribution.

Mariana is an enchanting read. It is a between-the-wars coming-of-age tale that has been rightly compared to I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith. Mary Shannon is first introduced to the reader as a young married woman tucked away in a remote cottage in the Second World War. The weather outside is dreadful, the telephone lines are down and she does not know whether her husband, who is serving in the war, is alive or dead. At night, tossing and turning, and hopeless of sleep she begins to remember the events of her life from childhood through adolescence and into marriage. This act of remembrance is the subject of the book – it is a recollection story, much like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We learn swiftly that the young woman who fears that her husband may have been lost in the second world war, lost the father whom she never really knew in the first. Her character and her life seem poised between two great tragedies but her mind is preoccupied with concerns that we all share – love; marriage; family; home.

Mary is a middle class English girl with a good eye for observation and no exceptional talents. She grows up in London with her vivacious and enterprising mother Lily and her louche and charming Uncle Geoff. Her late father’s side of the family are rather more upper class and live on the income from a chain of expensive restaurants. Their country home, the pastoral Charbury is the scene of Mary’s summers, her first brushes with romance, her early adventures and the source of her not inconsiderable sense of social superiority. The dominant love of her early years is her cousin Denys. Denys is handsome, arrogant, bullying and most undeserving of his cousin’s adoration. Like many girls of her class and period, Mary did not quite know what to do with herself in that uncomfortable interlude between school and marriage. As a result of this the reader is treated to her account of her hilariously unsuccessful spell in a drama school, followed by a year of dress making and romancing in Paris, and the events which ultimately lead to her marriage.

The first part of Mariana is far more successful than the second. Mary as a child and young teenager is a character so familiar and so real as to be almost settled on the sofa and reading the book alongside one. Every teenage girl, or woman who has been a teenage girl will recognise her unholy combination of certainty and ignorance, her desperation to be loved by some and her offhandedness with the love granted to her. The unintended humour in her story telling is a tick of growing up that all of us can recognise. Her adventures with her cousin Denys which run the gambit of worship, partnership, conspiracy and disillusion were, for me, the most successful part of the book. It is in developing Mary’s awareness of Denys, that Monica Dickens comes closest to the kind of magic that Dodi Smith achieved in I Capture the Castle. This is rather in contrast to the second half of the book, which I found rather disappointing. I felt that Mary’s later adventures did not ring true and in particular, the ending is hurried and underdeveloped. The “perfect man” when he arrives, moves so fast that one might be tempted to think that he had a train to catch. Many readers have found Mary an unsympathetic girl to share a book with. She is a little snobby, rather insensitive sometimes and displays the casual anti Semitism and class based contempt that was common in the period. However, for me, the imperfections of the girl rather added to the book. Monica Dickens is by no means uncritical of her heroine – part of the message of the book is that she is ordinary, she is of her age, she is not heroic and that is one of Mariana’s great charms.

Although burdened with a dodgy second half, I can well understand why Persephone re-printed this novel and why it has become rather a classic. The fact is that Mariana is a wonderful period piece, full of the sounds and smells and sights of an era. When the rackety Uncle Geoff takes young Mary for dinner at the Cafe Royale at some point in the early 1930s, she provides one of the best descriptions that I have read of this, the most famous of London’s “Bohemian” hang-outs. Similarly, the description of Mary’s ill-fated attendance at Denys’ Oxford College Ball, is quite lovely and reminded me of the description of Eights Week in Brideshead Revisited – it somehow manages to almost burst with unobtrusive period detail.

I am certainly not the only blogger who has enjoyed reading Mariana. I have enjoyed reading reviews by Claire at The Captive Reader, Becky Holmes at A Book A Week, Uncertain Principles at Another Cookie Crumbles, Katherine at A Girl Walks Into A Bookstore, Nicola at Vintage Reads, Carolyn at A Few Of My Favourite Books and Miranda at A Skirmish of Wit.

I have included a picture of the beautiful Persephone cover, as well as a few pictures of Monica Dickens herself.

42 comments:

  1. I loved this one too although I can understand why some people disliked it. I think you said it best when you wrote that it encapsulates a certain period in history.."Mariana is a wonderful period piece, full of the sounds and smells and sights of an era." My thoughts exactly and I just love coming-of-age stories from that era.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I do love Monica Dickens, and managed to pick up one on ebay last week - it turned out that although I thought I'd read all her books, I hadn't!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This sounds like one I'd enjoy. I've read some Monica Dickens, but not this. 'I Capture the Castle' is such a lovely, funny book and you have reminded me that it's been ages since I last read it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have long wanted to read a Persephone book, and what with all the great reviews this week, I have added quite a few of them to my wish list! It sounds like even though the protagonist wasn't always likable, she was believable and maybe a bit of a product of her times. Sometimes I enjoy characters like that, and this, coupled with the fact that this book does such a great job with describing the effects and atmosphere of the war greatly interests me. This is another book that I am adding to my wish list. THanks for the incredibly erudite review!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Mrs B - yes the period detail and feel for me were what really made the book - that is what lifted out of being hum-drum.

    Verity - oh lovely it is always nice to discover titles that you didn't know about. An interesting one from that point of view is A. A. Milne - he wrote all sorts of things in all different genres etc - enough to keep anyone on their toes!

    Joanne Fox - welcome to my blog and thank you very much for your comment. the comparison with "I Capture the Castle" is made by the publishers of "Mariana" but I do think that it is a fair one - although Mary Shannon is not quite as charming a girl as the main character in I Capture (is it Cassandra? I can't remember, but I think so...)Anyhow - I do hope that you get hold of Mariana, it is a most enjoyable read.

    Have a happy Tuesday evening all

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dear Zibilee - I think that you and I must have typed our comments together! Thank you so much for your kind words.... Yes, Mary Shannon is imperfect, but she is believable and that is the charm of her narrative. Your point about war - I was umming and arring about whether or not to have a paragraph about this in the review - but it was already so long that I thought I ought to not bother... I wish I had now. Mariana is interesting because Mary Shannon (and Monica Dickens I think) were of that generation who had their childhood blighted by WW1 (parents/uncles dying etc) and their adulthood blighted by WW2 - and yet at the same time, they grew to maturity in peacetime. Mary Shannon's life is in many ways signposted by world wars but she is quite nonchalant about them. the brilliant thing about this book is that the narrator is not at all political or even very historically conscious - but it is as a result of this that she delivers such a clear historical picture. I think that it shows how ordinary life permeated the war experience.

    I do hope that you manage to get hold of this one, I think that you'd enjoy it!

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is probably the most interesting review of Mariana that I have read so far and I want to read it (and about 15 other Persephones) now!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Tea Lady - gosh - thank you for your kind words. I hope that you enjoy it. Anoher Persephone that I have read and loved is The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter Downes - that is fantastic. Enjoy! Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  9. I like that the main character is imperfect. That is very teenager to me :-) And much more realistic. I have really enjoyed Persephone week, and I am THRILLED because I won a copy of a book through one of the giveaways so will soon have my very own Persephone version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. I'm so excited!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I enjoyed your review. Here's my review of the novel from a few months ago. I always appreciate your visits to my blog, and look forward to your thoughtful comments!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I receive the Persephone catalogue and have often thought of buying this book, your review has certainly persuaded me, thankyou.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What a super review! I very much enjoyed the pictures you included as well. I'm very pleased to have discovered your lovely blog :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. sounds like a delightful book--thanks for visiting today.

    ReplyDelete
  14. thank you all for your futher comments this evening....

    Aarti - well done you! Yes it is very teenager - there are so many teenager moments. Have you seen the film of Miss Pettigrew? You might enjoy that.

    Rob - thanks so much, I am on my way...

    Zetor - I think that this is a relatively good place to start with persephone, although they are all very well chosen. Enjoy!

    Good evening folks!

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  15. Miranda and Kaye - we must all three have been typing at the same time!

    Miranda - thank you very much. Where would I be without google images search I don't know!

    Kaye - you are welcome - it is a great read - well worth it.

    Good evening all,

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  16. It's nice to know I'm not the only one with reservations about the second half of the book, although it's still a pleasant read. I found her drama teachers quite horrifying! (esp since I've taken acting classes with much nicer teachers) Also liked your observation about children growing up between the wars, I'm reading Hons & Rebels by Jessica Mitford right now and marveling over how the fascist vs communist struggle drove a line right through their home, it's quite fascinating. One thing that irritated me about Mariana was the languidness with which Mary greeted the war, she only complained because it spoiled her Italian honeymoon!

    I have to confess I've never read I Capture the Castle, though I've often heard of it and even glanced at it and seen the movie... I'll get to it eventually!

    ~ Carolyn

    ReplyDelete
  17. As soon as I saw mention of I Capture the Castle, I added Mariana to my list. I read the former for the first time last year and fell in love with it. It was one of the only books I've read in recent memory that I wanted to last longer than it did. Anyway, that's a long way of saying I look forward to reading Mariana.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Super review Hannah and how nice to discover your lovely blog! Persephone Week has been wonderful in oh so many ways :) I don't really like I Capture the Castle very much (always feel I should whisper that!), but am looking forward to trying Mariana.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hannah, you are not the only one caught snoozing during Persephone Week!! I'm guilty -- guiltier, even -- too. I was supposed to read The Carlyles at Home, which I snapped up during my last trip down Lamb's Conduit Street; but alas, I did not.

    Thanks for your great review of Mariana. I also have the novel on my shelf, but I got stalled on the first go at reading it. I think there's something in what you say about its 'period piece' quality. Anyway, I really enjoy your blog. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Hannah, such a pretty blog you have! (Thanks for visiting mine today, so that I could meet you.) To top it off, living in France is so wonderful! I've lived in Gourdon, an extremely small town, and been to Paris more times than I can count (even buying my wedding dress there, which was quite special. I didn't want to look like an American wedding cake in my dress!) Anyway, I share your love for books, and art, and beauty, and I'm looking forward to sharing more thoughts with you.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hannah, don't feel bad, I still haven't finished my Persephone challenge book. I just posted a "halfway point" half-review tonight. Thanks for sharing your review.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I love Monica Dickens' Mariana and am so glad you discovered her! It's a very funny, sad novel, and I loved the drama school comedy. I'm also a great fan of her humorous autobiographies.

    Yay, Persephones!

    ReplyDelete
  23. hi Hannah what a great review. You and I must have the same taste because I always desperately want to read the books you review. I will add it to the ever lengthening list. xoxo

    ReplyDelete
  24. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Lucy

    http://businesseshome.net

    ReplyDelete
  25. Thank you all for your visits and comments.

    Carolyn - welcome! I do hope that you are enjoying Hons and Rebels - i read it a few years ago and really enjoyed it. There is a collective biography of the Mitfords by Mary S Lovell which I also liked (I did not think that it was particuarly brilliantly written if I remember rightly but it tells such an amazing story that it doesn't really matter!).

    Charley - I hope that you enjoy it.... have you seen the film of I Capture? that is quite good too.

    Rambling Fancy "that's ok" I whisper! You might like Mariana anyway - hope that you do.

    Elizabeth - I am so touched that you enjoy the blog and always appreciate your kind comments. Enjoy the Carlyles at Home when you get around to it/them!

    Dolcebellezza - you and me both! thanks for stopping by. I have been quite literature heavy recently but am going to try to include more about art in the future.

    Bibliophiliac - lovely, i will pop over and read right now! Enjoy part 2.... and thank you for stopping by.

    Frisbee - I have to admit that I haven't read anything else - so I am looking forward to the next Persephone that is coming out in the autumn.

    Jane - I know, those kind of lists are always hopelessly long... mine is getting well beyond a joke now. I hope that you enjoy it one day and thank you very much for reading

    Marion - that is very kind of you, thank you, I am touched.

    Enjoy the rest of your weeks folks!

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hey Hannah! Another beautiful post as usual :) I am becoming more and more curious about these persephone books :) I have an award for you over at my blog :)

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hi Vaishnavi - thank you so much for the award, I am on my way over now.
    Hope you are feeling better.
    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  28. If it hadn't been for Bibliophiliac and then you I'd never have heard of Persephone Books. As it is, I'm so hooked. I've signed up for the Biannual and can't wait for it to come. (Do hope they ship to the US? - Oh, they must)

    ReplyDelete
  29. You have hooked me, even with the less than stellar 2nd half, any book that can be compared with I Capture the Castle is worth reading, just for the flavor. I have known about Monica Dickens for awhile, but still never read anything by her.

    >However, for me, the imperfections of the girl rather added to the book. Monica Dickens is by no means uncritical of her heroine – part of the message of the book is that she is ordinary, she is of her age, she is not heroic and that is one of Mariana’s great charms.

    I really liked your comment here--I'm a big fan of the flawed main character, and you capture why I like them so much.

    Thanks also for introducing me to Persephone Classics...must check out the others.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Grad - I hope so too - I expect that they will, I think that Persephone have quite an audience in the states (that is the impression I get in the blogosphere anyhow). happy reading and thanks for visiting.

    Jane - I also am a fan of the flawed main character idea and I would be really interested to hear what you make of Mary because she is flawed rather than awful if you know what I mean. She is a little selfish, a little snobby etc rather than being a dreadful person for whom the reader can feel no sympathy at all... Anyway, i hope that you manage to get hold of the book, it is well worth it.

    Thanks so much for your comments all,

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  31. I know what you mean about the imperfections of a character adding to the book! I hate reading about characters who are perfect or vanilla-flavored.

    The ad about Monica Dickens' work was LOL. "Amusing, always acceptable" was probably high praise, but it seems so weak now.

    This novel is going on the wishlist! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  32. I've read just one Monica Dickens but nothing of this genre so thank you for highlighting this book.

    ReplyDelete
  33. This one is on my wish list. Thanks for your lovely review!

    ReplyDelete
  34. Although I've owned this for years, and count One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens amongst my favourite books, I still haven't read it. But your mention of I Capture the Castle and Rebecca has definitely put it several places up the tbr pile... will I enjoy it, even though I have never been (and am never likely to be) a teenage girl...?

    ReplyDelete
  35. I agree with you about the second part of the book - did prefer the first half. However, I do think the comparison with I Capture The Castle was a little over the top. Then again, I absolutely adore I Capture The Castle...

    Despite Mary being an "unsympathetic" character, per se, I did find myself rooting for her - don't know why! There were times when I thought she should be slapped, but there was something about her.

    ReplyDelete
  36. This sounds really good. I've added it to my to-read list. I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on the Book Reviews: WWII page on War Through the Generations.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

    ReplyDelete
  37. Thank you so much for your comments.

    Bybee - yes it sounds almost damning doesn't it? I don't think that they meant it that way. Have you read Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession? that casts some light on the way that these kind of books were presented - bery different to the way that they would be marketed if they were new today.

    Mystica - i do hope that you enjoy - well worth a read!

    Passionate Book Lover - you are most welcome! Enjoy the book.

    Simon - from what I know of your literary tastes, I think that you will like it, especially the first half of the book. I am sure that the world of the teenage boy has its fair share of confusions and so on - in fact you have got me worried that there is too much gender speak on my blog. I really hope that you like the book.

    Uncertain Principles - I got quite mad with the way that she relates to her Mother - but es was also rooting for her to get some happiness as well. I think that as well as the fact that she is quite charming in some way, i was also influenced by the idea that she is not a very capable girl - she needs people to look after her, so as her reader - you are hoping the whole time for them to come along sort things out - and not die off.

    Anna - Of course that is ok - thank you very much indeed! Enjoy the book.

    Have a good week all!

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  38. It seems it's hard to find a Persephone that isn't worth reading. You've managed to add another book to my wishlist, although I have to admit that a few other Persephone's are higher up the list. I'm not sure if I could deal with the slower second half.

    ReplyDelete
  39. Thank you for this wonderful review. It's on "the list". I'm one of the few I guess who hasn't heard of Persephone until this past month, so at least I'm not the last. :) (queen bee)

    ReplyDelete
  40. Thanks for your comments both.

    Iris on books - well I do hope that if you get around to it you will let me know what you think.... the cover is absolutely gorgeous if that is any sort of inducement!

    Kim - well, i am very pleased to be a part of the pro Persephone chorus! I do hope that you enjoy discovering their titles and thank you for visiting my blog.

    Best wishes for a happy week to both of you,

    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  41. I have not read Mariana yet. The only Persephones that I have read were: Kitchen Essays (loved it) and Cheerful Weather for a Wedding (just okay).

    I purchased a Whipple book for Persephone Week but never got to crack it open. I had too many reviews that I committed to so I had to postpone the reading of it.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Hi Hannah,

    My late mother and Monica Dickens were pen pals. I have a some wonderful typed air mails and a hand written letter whilst in the Uk from back in the 70's. My mother suffered from manic depression and Monica would write to her, to share stories about her childhood growing up and would often ask about our family. There some amazing banter (one concerning Catherine Cookson)and some quirky lines, between the strong emotional support she provided. You can tell by the letters, she was a real rebel and deeply caring woman.

    I just wanted to share this, with you and your readers.

    Chris Scott
    Dundee
    Scotland.

    ReplyDelete