Book Review

Mariana by Monica Dickens

a serviceable though chaste 1940s bildungsroman

Persephone is one of those presses that almost exclusively publishes “old” books, but in lovely paperback editions. Their focus is on “neglected classics”: i.e. texts that haven’t kept the reputation they once had, or texts that never had the reputation they deserved, often due to the fact that they were written by women in a patriarchal world. Mariana is a “coming-of-age” type novel, a Bildungsroman innit, originally published in 1940 by a then-young writer, Monica Dickens.

Dickens was, yes, related to that Dickens: she was the granddaughter of the man I often think of as the 19th-century Shakespeare (i.e. prolific, sometimes great, desperate for a good editor and vastly overrated). Is the novel about being related to Dickens, or is it even Dickensesque? Not at all, to both of these, but obviously her lineage would have been an eyebrow-raising biographical detail when first starting out as a writer.

Stylistically, Mariana feels very much of its time, and a time that is long past. It is about romance, but it is chaste; it opens and closes (the rest is flashback) with fears related to the outbreak of war, but it is tritely optimistic; it’s about lower middle class people teetering on the edge of going under financially, but everything is saved when the protagonist and her widowed mother marry rich men. It is a novel from an old, conservative, tradition, and it hasn’t aged well. To think of this as a “neglected classic” is actually pretty generous: though it is a perfectly serviceable novel from 1940, it doesn’t explore anything with much clout or insight.

The novel is very episodic, too, but it never once flashes back to the “present” during the middle of the story, which seems like weak/pointless structuring: the use of the war as a framing device seems far more of a contemporary “hook” rather than a structural necessity: obviously the way we think of the Second World War generations on is very different, but in most literature of this period there is typically more reflection of the fascism and nationalism and the dictators that were rising across Europe. Dickens’ novel – and her characters within it – are “apolitical”, and able to be so because of their social/economic privilege. Like in lots of middle class novels from this period, the “threat of poverty” means the fear of having to ask a relative for money or urging your boyfriend to leave his wife for you. School fees are paid for by grandad, the uncle from the poorer side of the family is a failing stage actor who “makes it in Hollywood”, going to Paris to study means doing a room swap with a posh French girl who wants to live in London, rather than paying for food and lodging oneself. Even the hardest moments of ones life are really not all that hard.

There’s a Preface (written in 1999 by Harriet Lane) that describes Mariana‘s protagonist (called Mary, not Mariana) as unlikeable, which seems a strange comment. I don’t think Dickens makes her character unlikeable, far from it, I think she is quite an interesting and intriguing character who is not – as many people from her social background would be – committed to living a tired, predictable life. Mary wants to have adventures, she wants to travel, she wants to perform and she wants to create. She goes to drama school and this long section is – for me – the highlight of the novel, because she’s awful at acting. A less engaging novel than this would have made Mary unaware of her talentlessness, but instead Dickens’ heroine clocks that she’s out of her depth almost immediately and from there follows a hugely entertaining 50 pages of someone half-arsedly going through the motions of vocational Arts training, just waiting for it to be over.

Later in the novel Mary goes to Paris to study fashion (later still becoming a designer) and has a – seemingly unconsummated – romance with Pierre, a gently obnoxious, superbly rich Frenchman. They are engaged, but once he visits England she realises that the parts of his personality she doesn’t like aren’t “engaging French quirks”, they’re just evidence that he’s a bit of an arse.

What the novel loses in its lack of engagement with sex and sexuality is a real evocation of young love and stupid romance. We’ve all been attracted to people we don’t like at some point in our lives, and it isn’t “romance” that keeps us in their company, it’s The Horn. Mary – the name is significant (Virgin) – is repressed, though she doesn’t seem to notice and neither does Dickens. The feelings of a childhood crush are not the same as the feelings for someone you’re making out with in a chic Paris nightspot in your mid-twenties, but Dickens writes them as if they are. It’s a problem with popular literature of this pre-war era, I suppose, rather than Dickens specifically: it is half-done, Mariana is about growing up but it forgets that growing up is, primarily, a physical, bodily, visceral thing.

A book about romance that ignores sex is like a book about ice that doesn’t mention it’s the same material as water. You could do it, but it’d be fucking conspicuous…

Anyway, yes, Mariana was fine if underwhelming: an interesting, but not exciting, journey through middle class youth in the inter war years.

Bye bye.

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