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.
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.
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.