When I mentioned on Twitter last weekend that I was considering reading Mariana by Monica Dickens, Frances almost immediately piped up to say that she “looooooved that book.” That was more than enough to get me to read it, but then Thomas showed up and reported that he thought it was boring. Uh oh. Thomas is not the sort to mind slow, quiet books, so that did not bode well, but I decided that I would go ahead and read it to break the tie. Then, Rebecca joined in and said that she could see that it was a good book but that she too found it boring. Hmm… so now the tide is tipping toward boring. What would I think?
The first paragraph of the book was just about enough to win me over:
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.
Mary’s husband has gone off to fight in World War II, and she’s gotten tired of all the concerned people stopping in to check on her in her London home. So she’s packed up her dog and headed out for a weekend in the country where she could brood in peace. But late on her first night there, she turns on the wireless and hears that her husband’s ship has been sunk. With no way to get in touch with anyone that night, she turns her mind to the past:
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 a foolish dog across the marsh, she thought of all 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 in the linen-scented darkness waiting to hear whether her husband were alive or dead.
The ensuing chapters, which make up most of the book, are Mary’s reminiscences about her life. She remembers holidays playing with her cousins at the family home in the country, various humiliations at school, adventures with her beloved uncle Geoffrey, the heartbreak of unrequited love, a sojourn in Paris—all the events of her life that made who she is.
Particularly striking about these memories is that Mary herself is not a striking girl. And I don’t mean that she’s endearingly humble or more talented than she lets herself realize. She’s just ordinary. Her triumphs are few and insignificant. As a heroine, she is pretty dull. But I didn’t find the book dull.
Mary herself may not be interesting, but her memories are so vivid that I got completely drawn in to her story. Dickens writes beautifully detailed descriptions of everything Mary sees and feels (note the “linen-scented darkness” in the passage above). Also, these are Mary’s memories of what led her to this point. She sees her life as having made her into who she is—she has not seized control of life and shaped it herself. And I think that feeling of being directed by life creeps into the narrative. Even though Mary does take decisive action when necessary, she also lets things happen, drifting along to see where life takes her.
And despite not being interesting, Mary is likable. I did root for her. When she got involved in a relationship that clearly didn’t suit her, I wanted to see her find a way out. Most of all, I wanted her to find a life that would let her be true to herself. The challenge, however, is that she has to figure out what sort of person she’s going to be, what sort of person she is. Life is shaping her, but her temperament and values affect her responses. So there’s a tension here, and out of that tension comes a person:
When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person.
Although I perhaps didn’t love this as much as Frances did, I liked it an awful lot and didn’t find it at all boring, although I can see how one would. What I liked is that Mary’s journey is everyone’s journey. The details differ, but this central struggle is the same for everyone, and Dickens captures it extremely well.