Thursday, December 31, 2020

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Source of book: borrowed from my wife’s collection. 


From time to time, I borrow one of my wife’s Persephone Books, for a change of pace. Here is what I wrote to introduce the last one:


My wife discovered the small British book publisher, Persephone Books, a few years back, when she was looking for her own copy of The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, if my memory serves. Although it could have been Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. In any event, the publisher describes its goal as:


Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. 


From the three I have read so far, I would say this is accurate. These books aren’t in the pantheon of classics, but aren’t exactly fluff either. They are interesting, and represent a different kind of literature than either genre boilerplates or the heavy and turgid literary novels which characterized much of the 20th Century. One might say that they fall in a traditionally disrespected category: women’s literature. For much of history, women were given little shot at literacy - that was for men only. This wasn’t universal, of course, and it started to crack in a serious way with the Feminist movement, which insisted that women were the equals of men - and should be educated accordingly. That said, with the explosion of literate women, the fusty old men who had controlled social standards felt they had to denigrate “novels” as less worthy than the old Greek and Roman “classics” (which, conveniently, were taught only to men.) This prejudice against the things women read - and write - continues into our own time, with “chick lit” incurring particular dismissal, even as male-oriented boilerplate books feature the same (or worse) imaginative and formulaic writing.


In addition to the two listed above, I read Good Evening, Miss Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes last year. 


This book caught my eye because it was written by Monica Dickens, the great-grandaughter of Charles Dickens. It turned out to be a rather fun semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in England in the Interwar Period. The book is semi-autobiographical, but not in the strictest sense. The major events of the book do not match her life particularly well, but are loosely based on her emotional and romantic experiences. For example, rather than work at her mother’s dress shop (in the book), Dickens worked as a domestic servant and later nurse, writing about these experiences in non-fiction works. In addition, she drew from her experience as a journalist in later fiction. I mean, she had quite the fascinating life. 


The title does not refer to the protagonist, who is the much more ordinary Mary Shannon, raised upper-middle-class by a widowed mother. Rather, it is a reference to Tennyson’s “Mariana,” a rather melodramatic Victorian poem best known to many of us for the opening lines, which Henry Higgins makes Eliza Doolittle recite with a mouth full of marbles


With blackest moss the flower-plots

Were thickly crusted, one and all


Mary is forced to recite this during her brief foray into drama school, which...well, I’m getting ahead of myself. 


The story opens at the end, technically, with Mary awaiting word on whether her beloved husband has been killed in action in World War Two. Although the book never says for sure, it is at least implied that he has. The opening of the book is quite good. 


Mary sometimes heard people say: ‘I can’t bear to be alone.’ She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself. 


That’s quite the introvert statement. Then, Mary flashes back for the rest of the book to the various formative episodes in her own life. First are the memories of her extended family’s country estate, Charbury, which she would visit every holiday and summer, along with cousins and aunts and uncles. To her, it was a kind of heaven, the place where time stood still, and everything was right with the world. Plus, she is madly in love with her older cousin Denys, and thinks that the feeling is mutual. (Although less common now, first cousin marriage is legal in most places, and used to be considered normal and desirable.) Alas, Charbury is sold after the death of Mary’s grandmother. 


Another incident in the book involves an evening in London with her eccentric actor uncle Geoffrey, who gets drunk, takes off with a woman, and leaves Mary to fend for herself and get back home on her own. (Which she is able to do - she’s a teen.) It is pretty amusingly written. 


Later, Mary is enrolled at a private girls’ school (and Denys to Eton), which is not a particularly pleasant experience for her. In real life, Monica got expelled from St. Paul’s Girls’ School for tossing her uniform in the Thames - she was quite the character, apparently, just like Mary. She does make a lifelong friend there, though, and has some experiences, but as she puts it, “But it was not Charbury.” 


In addition to antagonizing her teachers, Mary has a traumatic experience attending a ball with Denys, who she still imagines is practically engaged to her. It turns out, he never thought that, and ends up snogging with another girl. 


After school, Mary is a bit at loose ends, and attempts two potential careers. First, she goes to Drama School, which ends, naturally, in disaster...and hilarity. Some of the best scenes in the book occur in this chapter, culminating in the disaster that gets her expelled. Her partner for the scene she must play is both connected to the stage (so he has a job even if he does poorly) and naturally talented, so he never bothers to rehearse with her, leaving her frustrated. At the end, when she has to re-do the scene with him in a runoff for first place (for him, not her), she burlesques it and sabotages the whole thing. And gets expelled, to her great relief.


I have to quote a great line from this chapter:


Mary sighed, and thought about love. One most have it; one must have the paradise of an imperfect lover, and she was as far away from finding it as she had ever been. She had thought that Denys was the answer to everything, and when she had found that he wasn’t she had been left alone with no one on whom to pin the burden of romantic devotion.  


Next, she studies dressmaking in Paris so she can work for her mother. And ends up engaged to Pierre, the son of a wealthy banker, who charms her, but is clearly unsuitable for her. (She wants to live in England, he in France, so…) She breaks it off at the last minute, but not before we have some awkward and humorous scenes of him with her family in the English countryside. Pierre isn’t horrible, particularly for an entitled rich boy. He’s just...very French and very much a rich kid. He is the “dream lover” so to speak, but not really practical for everyday life. I also cannot but be reminded of a recurring character in one of my favorite comics, Foxtrot, Pierre, the dream lover of Paige. 


 Pierre is also, interestingly, best around women, unlike most of the British men in Mary’s life. 


He was always at his best in mixed company, demonstrating his prowess at the art of whose existence most Englishmen were ignorant - how to treat women. 


Ultimately, what changes Mary’s mind is the memory of advice from her Granny.


‘The smallest doubt in your mind,’ she had said, ‘must be enough to show you it’s not the right man. That doubt won’t disappear after you’re married; it will grow until it becomes first an annoyance, and finally, perhaps, even a hatred.’


This is so true, and I can cite numerous examples from my legal practice. By doubts, of course, neither Granny nor myself really means imperfections - we are all imperfect, even my wife (although not by much.) These are doubts that the match is right. I had no doubt I was making a good match with Amanda, and I have turned out to have exceptional taste in women. But those who ignore the legitimate doubts tend to have marriages that end poorly. 


Eventually, Mary does find true love, in the form of Sam Howard, a young architect with a sense of humor and kindness. He is perhaps a bit too good to be true, but not really. He’s just a nice guy, nothing special to look at, but who charms Mary by being himself. They meet through a mutual client - Mary is driving the old lady around to see houses as inspiration for the one Sam is to design for her estate back in the United States. The fact that Mary ends up hospitalized with appendicitis lends plenty of drama to the meeting, and the fact that Sam sees her at her worst and still likes her is a point in his favor. 


There are a couple of good lines in this section. First is Mary’s thoroughly legitimate complaint about the lack of good coffee in Britain. I don’t know what it was, but the “instant coffee” at the one London hotel I stayed at was definitely not coffee or even a coffee-like substance. The only good coffee I had during our trip there in 1998 was at an internet cafe. But other than that, I learned my lesson and stuck to tea. Once we moved over to France, it was back to good java. 


She had got through lunch all right. She had managed to toy with the food when the pains began to subside, and had even drunk a cup of tepid black coffee, made by that secret formula known only to provincial hotels which ensures that coffee shall taste of anything - gravel paths, bitter aloes, charcoal, soap - but never of coffee. 


I cannot improve on that description. 


The final quote is in reference to a subplot. Mary’s widowed mother lives with Uncle Geoffrey until his marriage, but has an ongoing relationship with Gerald. Gerald is married to an invalid who refuses to get a divorce (ah, the good old days.) But, finally, she...wait for it...runs off with the interior decorator, freeing Gerald to marry Ms. Shannon. 


For years, his wife had lain palely on her chaise longue, refusing to divorce him, and having one of her nerve storms if he ever touched on the subject. Then one day, having exhausted the medical books in the house and unable to think of any new ailments, or feeling, perhaps, that she had done a good job of spoiling Gerald’s life, and ought to start on somebody else, she had run away with the interior decorator who was supposed to be designing a new colour scheme for her bedroom. Not run literally, of course, but driven exhaustedly away in a cream-coloured coupe, according to the cook who had been slicing beans at the kitchen window and had seen her go. 


That’s the sort of humor and wit that I loved about the book. I also found it fascinating that Dickens doesn’t make Mary the most likeable character. She is naive, selfish, melodramatic, petty, and very human. But she is still fascinating, and you cannot help rooting for her. I think a good author can be known by this: that the character which is a stand-in for the author is no romanticised, idealized version of themselves, but present with all the flaws and foibles. 


This book is, to a degree, chick-lit, at least in theme. But it is, if not intended to be Serious Literary Fiction™, it is nonetheless well written and a joy to read. I am tempted to try to find Dickens’ non-fiction accounts of her working first as a cook, and then as a nurse. They do appear to be out of print, but available on the used market for not too much. If her true stories are as witty as her fiction, it should be a fun experience. 



The book cover has a painting, Amity, by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, which I rather liked. 




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