Monica Dickens’ Mariana
Penguin, 1961 (1940);
Persephone Books, 1999
Persephone No. 2

Monica Dickens is an author I thought of as a children’s author first; I read her World’s End books and Follyfoot stories as a girl, repeatedly. Not as compulsively as I read and re-read other stories, and I don’t recall being so enthusiastic that I pressed them upon reading friends and family, but I did re-read them. (I’m not mathematically inclined, so logically I’m not sure it’s possible, but I think I re-read more than I read when I was a child.)

I imagine now, having recently wandered in and out of Mariana for a few weeks (her first novel, which was written for adult readers, as her work for children came later in her career), that I turned to Monica Dickens’ books at the library when I wanted a “nice little story”. That’s what reading Mariana felt like and I think that’s why I took more than a month to read it.

In the intense summer heat, even carrying a Penguin pocketbook (even one as charming and orange as this one, which was sent from overseas, so it’s even more Dickensian), can seem an unreasonable burden. Books with complex language, plot or structure can so easily be set aside on days so hot that you could watch the sweat drip down your body (if you could only keep your eyes open, that is).

So I particularly appreciated this gentle read, the sense of familiarity that came with it (even though I’m sure I hadn’t read this novel before). I didn’t feel in any way compelled to read it, but nor did I feel so disengaged that I considered not finishing it.

I was content to amble, feeling half as though I knew exactly what would happen next, but not bothered by its near-predictability (it might well crossed the line to predictable for me if I’d read it in another mood). It felt like the kind of read with which one should eat hot-buttered toast, if only the idea of eating anything hot wasn’t an unbearable thought just now.

My favourite character was Uncle Geoffrey (I think every girl should have an uncle like that) and the part of the story that I most enjoyed was Mary’s experience at acting school (even though it likely fell near the top of her list of most hated experiences). It also felt especially timely to discover Paris alongside her, especially with Paris in July in mind.

“Yes,” said Mary. “I’d love it. Paris…Mummy, is it true that it’s got quite a different smell from anywhere else?”

She found that it was true. It was more a quality of the air than a definite scent, as enchanting as the Charbury smell, but much more intangible, more difficult to define. The Paris smell was an exciting, elusive mixture of spring flowers in the Bois, pavements in the sunshine, Dubonnet, the hot, metallic tang of the Metro, and the lightness and the clearness of the air itself. You could never imagine a fog in Paris. Indeed, to be there in springtime was to be unable to imagine it at any other season.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the coming-of-age aspect of the story, and there were a lot of elements of the story to which I could easily relate.

For instance, having a favourite adult confidante who offered a particular sense of, almost conspiratorial, understanding: she finds this with her grandmother who is confined to her bed and hands out a single sweet daily.

“Mary told her all about the ride, reliving it in her enthusiasm. She loved telling things to her grandmother, and hearing her say, ‘Yes, yes, I can see it!’ when she managed to describe something as it really had been. Granny was always so quick to understand — not like most grown-ups who seemed deliberately to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.”

And I was a scribbler as a child, an-easily-distracted-and-heavily-influenced-by-sensational-stories scribbler, too: “Mary got so intrigued by this that she bought penny note-books and began to fill them, out of school hours, with stories of blood and crime and reckless passion, that never got finished, but were tremendously exciting to start.”

Apparently rooted in autobiography, Mariana follows its heroine from childhood to maturity. “A corner of the jigsaw of Mary’s life had been made into the right pattern, by unknown means. It seemed that one had little control over one’s own destiny. All one could do was to get on with the one job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself.”

And, ultimately, much as her school report predicted at a young age: Mary is what one might call a good egg. “But her heart is right, and we feel sure that when she has overcome the difficulties of a rather reserved nature, she will mature into a fine woman.”

But even while part of me is settling comfortably into this novel, I am troubled by the degree of comfort that I feel with it. Mary’s life is also not only sheltered, but her outlook shallow, and she embodies the prejudices of her time and social class (even though one does have the sense that her mother struggles to keep on the “right” side of “proper”); her insular view of the world is one which I know well, a story I have read countless times, and it reminds me how much reading time I have devoted to reading books that don’t challenge those presumptions but, instead, perpetuate them.

It’s easy to understand why this novel has such a wide appeal; I can imagine recommending it to many readers. And, yet, for those readers who enjoy having their perspectives widened, I would rather recommend another wartime Persephone, like Marghanita Laski’s To Bed with Grand Music (Persephone No. 86). Perhaps it’s not as comfortable but even though I do appreciate a good comfort read, I also think there’s such a thing as being a little “too” comfortable.

What do you think?