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.