Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Mariana by Monica Dickens - Classics Challenge

Published 1940

I'm sneaking this in at the last minute as a contribution to the Classics Challenge. In her May prompt Katharine asks: 

What literary movement is the prose or poetry you're reading from? What are the values or ideals of the movement? Name other writers of the movement.

I've addressed the question rather obliquely, but I think (I hope!) adequately - I didn't have a lot of time but I did want to contribute, because I've missed several months.

It also counts as a contribution to my own Century of Books.

Here's a book which fits comfortably into its genre, except that the author wouldn't remotely have considered herself to be writing a genre novel. Because it's very much a representative of that early twentieth-century phenomenon, the middlebrow: those endlessly interesting uneventful novels about little people and little things, the kind in which we see ourselves and our daily concerns mirrored and discover how we might ourselves deal with life's smaller vicissitudes and failures. If the broad sweep of life and death, war and peace is encountered here, it's at the domestic level, and is more likely to be a complaint about the servant problem during wartime than the death of a loved one, although many of these quiet books have moments of great poignancy. Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels written during the Second World War tell us a great deal about the drudgery and bleakness about life on the home front, with fear for husbands, sons and lovers a constant shadow, yet the women in the main move briskly and cheerfully through their days, reserving their anxieties for the moments when they are alone - and even then, refusing to indulge them.

Mariana is a coming of age novel. Its heroine, Mary Shannon, is first seen living alone with her dog on the Essex marshes, "brooding" while her husband is at sea - she's precisely the opposite of the Thirkell women, in fact, which makes her interesting in itself, because she's a different type, dreamy, liking her own company. But in the first chapter she hears that the destroyer her husband is on has been hit by a mine - just the barest details on the radio, and then she can't find out any more because she's alone in the middle of nowhere, with a storm raging outside and the phone is cut off:
She could not let herself think of that, not of the future. The past, the certain past, was the thing to hold on to. It was safer to look back than forward. While she lay and waited, watching the vague, agitated shape of the curtain at the mercy of the half-open window, hearing the wind and rain, and the barking of a foolish dog across the marsh, she thought of the things that had gone, the years that had led up to this evening - the crisis of her life. All the trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things that had gone to make the girl who lay in the linen-scented darkness waiting to hear whether her husband were alive or dead.
Thus we move seamlessly to memories of Mary's childhood visits to Charbury, the country house of her father's family, where Mary and her mother spend their holidays (her father was killed in 1916) and where Mary falls hopelessly in love with her glamorous cousin Denys. When they are not at Charbury, Mary and her mother live in London with Mrs Shannon's brother. Geoffrey is an actor, once fairly successful in the upper-class twit roles, but now ageing and not finding as much work. We follow Mary's girlhood through school  after which, she confidently expects, it will only be a matter of time before she and Denys are married and her life as a wife and mother will be mapped out for her.

I won't say more about the outcome, but there is inevitably the gap between school and marriage to be got through, and Mary moves on first to drama school. Here I found much to identify with - it's very obviously based on Dickens' own time at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art and rings entirely true, believe me.
The first girl, a strange creature called Muriel Willoughby, with wild hair and spindly legs, was told to be the Spirit of Spring. As an impersonation of Nervo and Knox it was brilliant. One could not laugh; it was all so sad and embarrassing, and too painfully suggestive of what one probably looked like oneself.
The college I attended could easily have been the model for the Rockingham College of Dramatic Art, and was so ghastly one couldn't have made it up. In fact, I seem to have highlighted most of this chapter, so familiar and dreadful is it.

From college Mary moves on to Paris, swapping places with the eldest daughter of a French family, where she suddenly finds herself to be happy. It's not necessarily a happiness that's going to last - life is rarely that simple - but for a while she's able to experience that carefreeness that disappeared with childhood. But she still doesn't really know what she wants, and she's still too willing to let others decide for her, and that anticipated happy marriage is still some way off.

In A Very Great Profession, her book on the woman's novel, Nicola Beaumain suggests that Mrs Dalloway would be more interesting if we knew what was going on her in kitchen. It's true - literary worth is all very well, but it's not what I want to curl up with at the end of a long and tiring day. And one of the things I enjoy most about middlebrow novels is the amount of social history they involve - you know what people ate, wore, went to see. Admittedly, these things can be found in memoirs too, but we shouldn't assume that, because these novels focus on the domestic, there aren't greater lessons to be learnt from them. Noel Streatfeild's Saplings, for instance, has more to say about quiet, unnoticed suffering than many books lauded by the literary establishment. Mariana was rather harshly treated by the critics when it was published, but it's notable that it stands up well to the passage of time, and has been in print for most of the last 70 years while many of the literary lions of its time have aged gracelessly and perished.


  1. The title immediately made me think of Tennyson's poem and the line "My life is dreary,
    He cometh not," she said. Then when I read your post I realised why!

    I haven't read this one, although have read others by Monica Dickens, which I loved, One Pair of Hands and others. Mariana sounds worth reading. Although a little later, written about the years immediately after the war One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes would also belong in this middlebrow category.

    I found this prompt difficult to do, because I didn't think the book I'd been reading fitted into a 'literary movement'. I think sometimes it's false to try.

    1. It's not funny in the same way as One Pair of Hands or My Turn to Make the Tea, but it's a nice read (certainly more so than Grahame Greene!). One Fine Day has very much the same sort of "feel", I guess, and is lovely. I was a little concerned before I started Mariana because I've read two books by Dickens that were rather grittier, and I wasn't in the mood for too much harsh reality, but that's not a problem here - it's fairly gentle, and you do get involved with Mary's hopes and fears. I do recommend it.

  2. I loved Mariana when I read it a number of years ago (and put it in the hands of a lot of other people I know who also loved it), and, like you, I like all those details of social history in middlebrow novels. I recently discovered and read Anya Seton's Dragonwyck and learned so much about 19th-century American history I never knew. I will definitely be reading more of hers.