Friday, July 10, 2009
Mary, fairly newly married, hears on the radio that the British destroyer her husband is on during WW2 has sunk and there are many casualties. Knowing that she will not be able to find out the fate of her husband that night, Mary goes to bed and unable to sleep, thinks about the many events that have made up her life. Thus begins Mariana (Persephone Classics) by Monica Dickens, the coming-of-age story of a woman, a woman that could be everywoman.
She is not the prettiest or the smartest or the most clever. She is not always lucky in love or circumstances or her career. But what she is good at is being herself. In one of my favorite lines from the novel Mary thinks "All one could do was to get on with the one job that nobody else could do, the job of being oneself."
We get to know Mary as a schoolgirl, enjoying holidays with her cousins in the country. From the beginning, we see that she is besotted with her cousin Denys, who will break her heart. Mary is not sure what she wants to do with herself besides become a wife and mother. Drama school does not work out all that well and a trip to Paris to learn dressmaking seems to go well until Mary meets the Wrong Man. Mary seems to sense that he is wrong, but not wanting to displease anyone, and hopeful to improve her family's circumstances, Mary carries on with him, until she simply cannot do it any longer. Finally, there is the Right Man, and with him comes all the joy that Mary has been hoping so long for.
Harriet Lane writes in the preface that "Mary is sometimes quite difficult to like." I did not find this this be the case at all, in fact quite the opposite. In fact, I loved Mary, in all her ordinary-ness. Weren't we all Mary at one time or another? I identified with Mary time and time again, when she felt out-of-place, heartbroken, or simply just not enough. Mariana is simply a brilliant portrait of a girl, she could be any girl, at any time, really, which is what makes this 1940 novel timeless and relevant. With this book, it is easy to see why Persephone began publishing in the first place, to share treasures like this one.