Mariana

She only said, ‘The day is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Today was particularly dreary. Grey, foggy, bleak, chilly. It was the perfect day, really, to finish reading Mariana – not Tennyson’s poem, but Monica Dickens’ marvellous novel.

Monica Dickens alludes to Tennyson’s poem, not just in the title but also on two specific occasions in the book. Once when the main character, Mary, has to recite it at drama school, and again, towards the end when there’s a terrible storm which finds her stranded in a house in Essex, awaiting some terrible news.

But the pleasing thing about reading Mariana (the book) is that however dreary the day, however aweary one feels, one cannot possibly read it and would that they were dead. It is the most wonderful, wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Perhaps, though, it particularly appeals to me.

An editor recently told me that she had a guilty love of crime novels. She asked me about my own favourite type of book; if I could read absolutely anything, what would it be?

‘I love coming-of-age novels,’ I replied. ‘Things like I Capture the Castle, and A Long Way from Verona, and The Go-Between. I absolutely adore them. They are just so comforting.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘I see. That’s psychologically quite interesting.’

I’d never thought about it like that before. Why do I love to revisit this time? The falling in love, the having a heart broken, the discovering something about oneself, the falling in love with someone better. It’s glorious. But perhaps it is psychologically interesting, or, indeed, alarming. Oh well, surely not as alarming as having a secret love of crime novels.

But, in case you too find yourself fond of a coming-of-age novel, of a certain mid-twentieth century language, peppered with words like ‘ravenous’, ‘thrilling’, ‘ghastly’ and ‘rather’, then, well you might adore Mariana too. (Incidentally, Westwood by Stella Gibbons, which I wrote about here, is another good one.)

I love Monica Dickens’s language. She has a wonderful turn of phrase which is at once precise, imaginative and quite funny. She describes the ‘hot, sugary interior’ of an ‘irresistible’ patisserie in Paris: it ‘made you feel like the jam inside a doughnut’. It’s perfect. All the sweetness and deliciousness and warmth being almost oppressive, so that it makes you turn as red and sticky as doughnut jam! Or how about Mary’s French boyfriend’s scary posh mother as:

no more than a cold, unemotional peg on which to hang diamonds; black-haired and bony-nosed, like a raven decked out in its stolen jewels.

Or indeed, on returning to England after her spell in Paris, Mary notices the feeling of the English air:

It was a feeling of damp, fresh security. Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.

I feel utter delight in reading sentences like this. What a clever lady she was. It turns out that she went to my school – which I despised and left at sixteen, as soon as I was allowed. If only they’d bothered to tell us about her, I might have liked it rather more.

Mariana tells the story of Mary, who, at the start of the novel is enduring a stormy, dreary, miserably night – awaiting the bad news. Dickens then tells us Mary’s story, starting with her childhood and the blissful holidays spent in her grandparents’ country house, running around in shorts and scrappy shirts with her cousins, climbing trees and putting on plays. Mary is in love with Denys, her arrogant, handsome, talented cousin, who is about to go off to Eton. There is a wonderful kiss in an attic. A few years later they go hunting together, having ‘breakfasted hugely off porridge and sausages’. I have to say I’ve always been seriously anti-hunting, but this was such a lovely passage, that I felt quite sad that it had been banned, and bizarrely nostalgic for it. Then there’s a heartbreaking episode at Denys’s university ball. After that there’s a funny bit where Mary tries hopelessly to become an actress. Then Paris. Then … oh, I don’t want to spoil it.

Amidst the all-round radiance of this book, there was one aspect that particularly intrigued me – probably because I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. And that’s Mary’s preoccupation with her grandparents’ house in the country, Charbury.

It is clear that Charbury is the setting for Mary’s happiest childhood memories:

For Mary, everything at Charbury was unquestionably perfect.

School was something to be endured until she was released for holidays there. Even the train journey down is wonderfully exciting, with Mary on tenterhooks for the joy that awaits. When, years later, once Charbury has been sold and her mother tells her how much all the family argued down there and that it could be ‘terrible’, Mary can’t quite believe it.

none of it could spoil the perfect memory that stayed with her through the years, glorified, almost to legend, because it was a time that could never come again.

Big mistake then, years later, to stop off there with her fiancé and ask the gardener if they could look around:

she stared and stared, unable to believe her eyes. ‘But it’s so small,’ she kept saying, ‘it’s so small.’

The gardener, with inadvertent irony, says, ‘It’s like old times. It’s like the old days to see you’. But, of course, that’s just what it isn’t like. Mary goes to embrace him as she would have done in the ‘old times’, but at the last minute he ‘drew back, and lifted his cap, suddenly embarrassed to find her grown-up’. Mary walks around the grounds and sees how everything has changed:

They went down to the Play House, which was locked up and dilapidated; the lily pond was empty of goldfish and had been made formal, with a fountain; the ha-ha wall – how could she have hurt herself jumping from that low height? – had been re-bricked wth glazed grey stones like a public house. ‘Oh darling, I wish we hadn’t come,’ Mary said.

Most hurtful is when she looks for the ‘swing tree’ – ‘one of our favourite places’, and sees no more than a ‘terrible, pathetic stump … flat and clean, like a new tombstone.’

Every house has its memories and its ghosts. And the flipside is that every house exists as a memory and a ghost for the person who used to live in it. How sad to see that time has take its toll. It makes me think of the eerie, deathly Time Passes section ofTo The Lighthouse.

But it’s clever, really, of Monica Dickens to draw our attention to how the house as changed. She certainly didn’t have to for any plot reasons. But it gets a new resonance when remembering Mariana the poem, which begins:

With blackest moss the flower-pots

Were thickly crusted, one and all;

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable wall.

The broken sheds look’d sad and strange;

Unlifted was the clinking latch:

Weeded and worn the ancient thatch

Upon the lonely moated grange.

It could nearly be the later version of Charbury, looking so ‘sad and strange’. Mary’s memory of Charbury is resolutely undreary; it is full of vitality, of happiness, of the chaotic energy of childhood. How poignant to see it so transformed.

Mary is a thoroughly undreary girl. So it is fitting, perhaps that, she remembers the poem Mariana, with its dreariness and decay right at the close of the novel, when waiting for the terrible news. It is a reminder of the agony of waiting, and the chilling realisation that as each infinitely slow moment passes, time is taking its dilapidating toll.

Sorry, I don’t want to end on too dreary a note. It really is a blissful book, only making one feel a little teary in the best possible way.

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