Thursday, March 13, 2014

An impressive first novel

Mariana, Monica Dickens

Since I was introduced to Monica Dickens last year, I've been reading her books all out of order.  I started with her first book, the lightly-fictionalized One Pair of Hands, and then went on to read her autobiography, An Open Life, published 40 years later (which I loved, it was one of my favorite books of the year).  In the autobiography, she discusses how she wove elements from her own life into her fiction, and I tend to recognize them as I'm reading the novels.  Mariana seems the most autobiographical of those I've read so far.  That isn't a complaint at all - I enjoyed this book very much, and in fact part of the fun for me was spotting the parallels.  I don't think she simply re-hashed her own life, as much as she built upon it, or drew from it, for her stories.

When I started this book, I had a vague idea it was about a woman living on her own, while her husband is off fighting in World War II.  I skipped the introduction to my beautiful Persephone edition, to avoid spoilers.  So I was surprised when it turned out to be a story told in retrospect.  Dickens sets it up beautifully: a young wife, Mary, who has just learned from a wireless broadcast that her husband's ship has struck a mine and sunk.  Some of the officers and crew were rescued, others were lost.  She immediately tries to call a friend in London, to get more information, but the lines are down in a storm.  She is stuck in her isolated cottage until morning, when she can catch a bus into the village, and telephone from there.  But first there is the long night to endure, alone except for her dog.
She would 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 the 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.
I did want to avoid spoilers, but at one point I gave in and read the last couple of pages, to learn the fate of her husband. As usual since I was missing crucial pieces of information that came later, the ending made no sense to me.  When I read the introduction, after finishing the book, it was only then that I learned why the book is called Mariana when the main character is Mary: it's the title of a Tennyson poem that Mary recites at one point. (I should look it up - I know almost nothing of his poetry.)

I have to admit, I found Mary's retrospective story so interesting and entertaining that for large chunks of the book I forgot that young woman lying there waiting, not to mention her possibly-dead husband.  It's a story of growing up in England between the wars.  Mary lives with her mother Lily, widowed in the Great War, and her mother's brother Geoffrey, an actor who specializes in footling young men.  Lily "gratefully refused" an allowance from her late husband's family, working to support the family, accepting help from Geoffrey when he has a part.  She does though accept invitations and gifts for Mary from the family, particularly the annual summer holiday at their country home, Charbury.  This is Monica Dickens' beloved Chilworthy, where she like Mary spent regular holidays. As she wrote in her autobiography, "Chilworthy, still very clear in the memory of all the senses, appeared in my first two books, and seems to have crept through cracks in many of the others."  So much of it is there in Charbury, including the "snake-buckle belt" that Mary wears with her boy's shorts, and the invalid grandmother with her wicker chair.  Like Dickens and her cousins, Mary and hers visit Granny every night at bedtime, when she gives them each a chocolate - a ritual never to be missed.

Also like her creator, Mary has a bumpy time at school (though unlike Dickens she avoids being expelled).  Like her, she struggles with her weight (which in Dickens turned out to be a thyroid issue).  When Mary leaves school, she is rather at loose ends, and again like the author, she talks her mother into letting her enroll in drama school.  It doesn't sound like much of a school, but then Mary isn't much of an actress, and she does manage to get herself expelled, in a much funnier way than her creator did.  Fortunately, her mother is just as understanding as Dickens' parents were (not to mention relieved).  Mary is then sent to Paris, to study dress design (where Dickens studied cooking).  But in the biggest difference between author and character, Mary doesn't want to work, she doesn't have any ambition or interest.  She sees her future in marriage and children.  She works in her mother's dress shop, but she is really only marking time.  Monica Dickens returned from Paris to a presentation at Court and the typical life of a debutante, but she found it unsatisfying and aimless. She wanted something to do, and she found a vocation first in working as a cook, and then in writing about it.

I really enjoyed this book, which I think is pretty impressive for a first novel.  I liked Mary from the start, and her capable, loving, flirtatious, voluble mother as well.  Their lives may be quiet ones, but I enjoyed following them through the years as Mary grows up, and learning about all those "trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things," in a world that was vanishing in the war.  As she is reminded more than once, "All one could do was to get on with the one job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself."


  1. I didn't realise this was her first novel. I picked up a nice secondhand copy (Persephone, too, which is even nicer as they are so rare here secondhand - or even firsthand) last year, so I'm all set to discover how she started out.

  2. vicki, I never see her books in the used-book stores (or Persephones either, for that matter), but happily I've been able to find them on-line at pretty reasonable prices.

  3. This is the only one of her books I've read and I really liked Mary, too. Had no idea it was her first!

  4. JoAnn, I wish I hadn't let this sit unread on the shelves for so long! That's the problem with too many TBR books piled up, the good ones get buried.

  5. I really do want to read this book. I regret passing over it the one time I saw it new in a lovely bookshop that is now closed...sigh. It sounds quite wonderful.

  6. Isn't it great to find a new to use author. It's been a while for me, but I love it when I get excited about a new discovery and start reading everything I can, even out of order.

  7. Mel, so often it's the books I've left behind that I regret the most - but then they turn up again when I least expect them! I hope you find another copy of this - it is wonderful.

    James, blogging had introduced me to so many great new-to-me authors. Sometimes I wonder how I ever found books before :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!