The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive.
When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with her dog in an isolated cottage in England, while her husband is at sea. It’s World War II, and, as she switches on the wireless, she learns that the ship on which he is serving has been hit and sunk. It is too late to travel back to London, and, to make matters worse, the cottage’s phone line is not working. Mary will have to wait until morning to get more news and find out if her husband has survived. As she anxiously gets through the night, our protagonist lays awake thinking back over her life until this point.
The narrative then jumps back to her early childhood, in the 1930s, when she is about eleven years old. Mary is living on modest means with her working-class mother, who had been widowed in the last war, and her uncle Geoffrey, an actor, in a small flat in Kensington. During her school days, Mary is anxiously waiting for the holidays, when she spends idyllic summers with her affluent paternal family at Charbury House, a large country house near Taunton in Somerset.
From then on, the story unfolds chronologically, and we follow Mary through her childhood adventures, her special bond with her cousin Denys and with her grandmother; the mishaps of her adolescence, her first love – and her first disillusionment; her short spell at drama school, and her year in Paris, where she attended fashion college. We go through her love affairs, her engagement, the early days of her marriage; and we are finally thrown back to the moment where the novel had started: that dreadful night, and the morning after.
Your novel draws on your personal experiences, as it chronicles the life of a young British girl growing into adulthood in the 1930’s: like Mary, you spent your holidays at a family house; you went to drama school, was expelled, and spent some time in Paris. The book borrows its title from Tennyson’s poem Mariana, which was inspired by the plight of Angelo’s lover in Measure for Measure. Tennyson’s poem not only appears in a pivotal moment in the novel (when Mary recites the poem at drama school), but also informs its tone: drenched with melancholy and desolation; the plight of a woman waiting for her lover, expecting the worst to happen; a sense of innocence loss; and the absence of conclusion, as the poem ends the way it had started.
The tone is your novel’s great strength for me – something in-between romance, family drama, coming of age, and comedy of manners. You manage to achieve just the right measure of wit and despair, and never fall into the trap of sentimentalizing the story. Mary’s childhood and early adolescence scenes are the most vivid, and we can experience those scenes as if from a double perspective: as the child and young girl living them; and as the adult remembering them years later. I felt it quite vividly in the scene where, years later, when Charbury had already been sold and Mary decides to visit the place, the brightness of her childhood memories gets tinted by the way the house changed, by its decay. Tennyson’s poem comes to mind here again: “With blackest moss the flower-plots / Were thickly crusted, one and all: / The rusted nails fell from the knots / That held the pear to the gable-wall. / The broken sheds look’d sad and strange: / Unlifted was the clinking latch; / Weeded and worn the ancient thatch / Upon the lonely moated grange. (…)”.
I was reminded of Dusty Answer, by Rosamond Lehmann (1927) – but I find your Mariana sharper, wittier, less self-conscious, perhaps. I particularly enjoy the fact that Mary is a flawed character: she is an average girl, self-centred, at times frivolous; she seems to have no passion, no gifts, no plan besides getting married. Mary has no idea what to do with her life, and for the reader that can be infuriating. But it is somehow very hard not to find Mary endearing. As her uncle Geoffrey says: “At the moment, she’s a blister, but there’s hope.”
You have a gift for fully describing a character (and its relationship with Mary) with just a few strokes: “there was a slow motion effect about her, a heaviness that made you feel that too much of her company would eventually overwhelm and stifle you, like a mattress”. The book is rich with texture and scent: you make it vivid by paying attention to the smallest details. We can almost touch the atmosphere, as if it were something solid, scene by scene: “It was a feeling of damp, fresh security. Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.” You build tension throughout the novel over the smallest elements, by moving them closer and closer to the reader.
I felt as if, by remembering her life and coming back to Charbury (the memory of a memory), Mary has committed a violation, ‘trespassing on her own ground’. That may well have been her undoing, but was also, in a way, her redemption song.
“There was something so wrong about being intimately bound up with a place and yet walking through it as a stranger, trespassing on one’s own ground.” – Monica Dickens,
“She had got to be alone, just for one night, at any rate. She wanted to creep away from everybody like an animal; she wanted to go to bed and cry. She wanted to be alone so desperately, that it was like a hunger.” ― Monica Dickens,
“For the first time she experienced that glorious moment when the bumping rush of the plane changes to a smooth buoyancy as the wheels leave the ground, and you realize that the miracle has happened; you are actually in the air, and rising, rising, unsupported, omnipotent, and ridiculously safe.” ― Monica Dickens,
“There was a slow motion effect about her, a heaviness that made you feel that too much of her company would eventually overwhelm and stifle you, like a mattress.” ― Monica Dickens,
“Paris had a feeling of its own in the air, so had England, but you only noticed it when you had been away. It was a feeling of damp, fresh security. Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.” ― Monica Dickens,
“Mary thought how strange it was to think that only a few inches of wall separated the placid cosiness of the sitting-room from the howling, streaming darkness. Houses were very defiant things.” ― Monica Dickens,
About the book
- Persephone Books, 1999, 377 p. Goodreads
- Persephone Classics, 2008, 377 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1940
- My rating: 5 stars
- This book was read for The Classics Club & 20 Books of Summer