Mariana – Monica Dickens

And so to the second of my Persephone Project reads which also happens, of course, to be the second novel to be re-published by Persephone Books, ‘Mariana’ by Monica Dickens. I have to say that before I had even opened a page of ‘Mariana’ I was intrigued by what it might hold (having not read the blurb as I tend not to do) as it seemed to be a book which had really mixed reactions from many a Persephone –lover. In fact even Nicola Beauman, via the Persephone letter, had pondered that I might not like it. So I have to admit that I went in with rather low expectations and even a little bit wary.

***** Persephone Books, paperback, 1940 (1999 edition), fiction, 377 pages, from my own personal TBR

You could quite easily sum up the premise of Monica Dickens first novel, though she had written a memoir prior to it, ‘Mariana’ as the tale of a young woman’s life growing up in the 1930’s. Even though it is a true enough description, it doesn’t really do justice to the book which I think is more the chronicles (which seems rather apt as she was Charles Dickens great-granddaughter) of a young woman’s life, Mary, and the ups and downs that it brings both for her personally from a young girl growing into adulthood and also chronicles the lives of a family and the differing social circles that they frequented during this period in history. It is like an epic story of the everyman at the time, and a damn good story it is too.

Mary, our protagonist, lives an unusual life. Her mother having been widowed she grows up living on modest means during the term times of her lives before visiting her sadly deceased father’s affluent family in the idyllic summers at Charbury House. Her mother Lily, a teacher come dressmaker, may have said no to any of her in laws hand outs yet remains in good relations with them and so at summer time, and Christmas too, that is where they go, being much more preferable to Mary’s maternal grandmothers who is a bit of a vile old bag. Charbury is where Mary is her happiest, it’s the place she can look forward to as she somewhat bumbles through schools and it is also where she can see the love of her life, her cousin Denys. As we follow Mary’s life Denys becomes a more pivotal character in her life though is that a good thing. From here, without giving away any spoilers, we follow Mary through drama school and fashion college, London and Paris, as she turns from child to adult with all the up and downs along the way.

“All the time she was at St. Martins, even when she was in the thick of everything, and herself one of the goddesses who turned new girls to stone, there was never a time when she could say to herself: ‘I am part of this place; I am one of the things that make it.’ She never got rid of the idea that it belonged to other people and that she was only there on sufferance.”

If someone had told me this is what the book was going to be about before I started I might have been inclined to think that this book really wouldn’t be for me. Yet I loved every single page of it and was completely lost in Mary’s life. Part of that was to do with the character of Mary that Monica creates, she isn’t the picture perfect heroine at all, she can be moody, ungainly and awkward, a little self centred on occasion but she is always likeable, her faults making her more endearing even when she can be rather infuriating. Part of it was also all the characters around her, I want to list them all but there are so many it would be madness, some of them delightful, some spiteful but all of them drawn vividly and Monica Dickens has a wonderful way of introducing a new character with the simplest of paragraphs which instantly sums them up. All of these characters are part of the many things that make you go on reading ‘Mariana’, every page or two someone new lies in store.

“She was always ready and waiting too early. Ever since her husband had forgotten her at a wedding and taken the car home without her, she was always expecting to be forgotten, even by people who could not conceivably have had too much champagne. She was Mary’s father’s sister, the eldest of the Shannon family, a tall, pigeon breasted woman, of whom in her late thirties people said. not ‘What a good-looking woman,’ but ‘She must have been very pretty a girl.’ A little rice-powder was all she would put on her face, and she lay awake at nights wondering if she dared have her hair bobbed. She strove earnestly with life, but was constantly perplexed by it. One of her favourite remarks was: ‘Thank goodness I’ve got a sense of humour.’”

There are plenty of laughs in ‘Mariana’, there are also moments of sadness and despair, and often the two are combined to great effect. This was one of the other strengths in Monica Dickens writing, she gets the mix of the wonderful and happy with the devastating and sad just right. Mary is not in for an easy ride as she grows up and in fact from the very first chapter we know something awful seems to have happened, the first chapter is so clever as is the last, and that fact is always there in the background as we read on as is the knowledge that at some point, due to the age she is living, war must be round the corner. It creates a very compelling, and also rather concerning, tension throughout.

“The clatter and crash of a tile falling from the kitchen roof into the yard deepened her despair. It was a wild storm. She had got to wait. To wait – and try not to think. She went back to the other part of the room. Perhaps if she sat down again and picked up her book, everything would be alright again. Time would click back, and she would find that it had never happened.”

As you may have guessed I loved ‘Mariana’ and am really glad I went into it knowing very little about it. It has elements of the real social history of the time, only fictionalised and is a proper story of our heroine growing into adulthood and all the highs and lows that this brings.  It also has a cast of characters that I am desperate to revisit again and again. As I mentioned earlier on, it is an epic of the everyman really. It isn’t often I read a book and think ‘ooh I must re-read you one day’ yet I have the feeling I will be rejoining Mary many more times in the future. I am also left wanting to go on and read every single thing that Monica Dickens has ever written.

More Monica Dickens to look forward to...

More Monica Dickens to look forward to…

Yes this for me was one of those books that make you want to re-read it and then binge on everything the author has ever done. I shall hold off for a while however. I am hoping the third Persephone makes me feel the same about Dorothy Whipple next month. Interestingly Gran has never read Monica’s books, so I am going to pack this with me next week on my visit as she simply has to read one of her books. Anyway over to you, have you read ‘Mariana’ and if so what did you think? I will be interested to hear your thoughts as it does seem to divide readers. Which Monica Dickens should I read next? As you can see from above I have two at the ready, but she has written so many! Thoughts welcomed.


Filed under Books of 2013, Monica Dickens, Persephone Books, Review, The Persephone Project

25 responses to “Mariana – Monica Dickens

  1. I read all of her Follyfoot farm books when I was little, but have never read anything she wrote for adults. In fact, am not sure I even knew she wrote for adults. Might have to check her “grown up” stuff out one day.

    • Well if all of her adult (not in that way, ha) books are like this then I am pretty sure I am set to become a complete Monica Dickens devotee. I could have easily started right back at the beginning with this book without a problem. Now I am having that lovely ‘oooh so many choices to read next feeling’ though the other Monica Dickens books I own are very, very tempting.


    I loved Monica Dickens’ autobiographical books “One pair of hands” when she was a nurse, and “One pair of feet” when she was in service, and look forward to enjoying this too; your review makes it sound well worth reading!

    • I loved it Glenda and I wasn’t expecting to, well to be fair I wasn’t expecting anything I think other people expected I wouldn’t like it. Anyway it was great regardless! I’m looking forward to trying her memoirs you mention and some of the other novels. Lots on a certain site for just 1p!

  3. Jan

    I used to love her books many years ago, but can’t remember the names of any of them now, apart from the biographical ones. But I remember her as a really good story teller. I don’t think I read Persephone though.

    • I think that there are lots and lots and lots of books you could have read Jan so it is no wonder you might not be able to remember them all. I am thrilled there are so many though, means I have lots and lots of great stories, and they are proper stories it seems, to read ahead of me. Persephone Books have another one, or maybe two, of hers so I am looking forward to those very much.

  4. I loved Mariana! It was one of the very first Persephone books I read and the first one to really delight me. I have only read a couple of Dickens’ other books since then, but this remains my favourite. I did pick up One Pair of Feet recently and am looking forward to it, despite having had slightly mixed feelings towards One Pair of Hands.

    • It is delightful isn’t it? Though that might make some people think it sounds twee, which it is in parts but I think its also really brutal in parts too. I loved all the characterisation and the sense of humour. I felt like I could have had a real giggle with Monica Dickens over a coffee or two and put the world to rights.

  5. Sharkell

    I haven’t read anything by Monica Dickens, I haven’t even heard of her. From what you have written, it looks like a great story and is similar, in some respects, to The House of Mirth, which I have just finished. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Lily Bart!

    • If The House of Mirth is written like this and has a marvellous heroine at its heart (I am going into reading that blind and plan to know nothing about it before I start) then I will love it, we will see. Definitely give this book a try if you ever see the Persephone copy, or indeed one of the older editions.

  6. One Pair of Hands is utterly brilliant, and One Pair of Feet is pretty good too.

  7. Eva

    You had me at:

    >>‘Mariana’ as the tale of a young woman’s life growing up in the 1930’s.

    😀 On to the tbr list it goes!

  8. sue

    I was delighted to read your review. This is one of my favourite books of all time: there are so many parts I know by heart because I reread it often.

    I have read many of her books including her auto biography and I commend them.


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  10. Rosemary

    This is a bit late but I’ve only just read this post.

    I love Monica Dickens, have read Mariana, One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc and enjoyed them all hugely. Years ago I worked near Notting Hill, and one day I walked up to the road in which MD spent her childhood. The very house (huge, must be worth a fortune) was still there – I gazed at it in awe, though thinking about this nowadays makes me feel a bit like Barbara Pym’s Dulcie (‘No Fond Return of Love’) stalking her love interests…

    Simon, if you liked MD have you read Joan Wyndham? She is a brilliant writer, and had a very interesting life. Her ‘Love Lessons’ is about her childhood and early life growing up in a very Bohemian household in London in the 1930s and 40s. She lived with her rather strange mother, and she eventually went to art school and encountered some of the wild characters that, in those days, still eeked out livings in Chelsea garrets. She is, at least at first, very naive and innocent, and her navigation of the world of chauvinistic, egotistic male artists is both funny and at time poignant. The book is short and absolutely wonderful.

    I discovered it, by the way, by reading excerpts in The Assassin’s Cloak by Alan Taylor – have you come across this? It brings together diary entries for each day of the year – so, on any given day (it’s great to dip into) you can find, maybe, something from Samuel Pepys followed by something else from Andy Warhol or Barbara Pym. It’s one of my favourite books and I have given copies to other people, who all seem to love it too.

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  14. Just reading Mariana now,March 2014…loving it…I’m just at the part when she is thrown out of the Drama College….oh, I do love the uncle character….
    (I also taught drama…)

  15. Karen

    So enjoyed reading your review. You were able to capture exactly why I loved reading “Mariana.” I can’t believe I’d never heard of this book or author before. She definitely deserves a wider audience!

    • It’s a wonderful book isn’t it? I have some of her others that I must read though they are memoirs of sorts. I think Thomas got some of hers when we went to Capitol Hill books in DC.

  16. Sela Still

    I would recommend Thursday Afternoons and Joy and Josephine as ones I remember from years back.

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