Mariana by Monica Dickens was written in 1940 and is a glorious book about a young woman growing up before WW2.
The book starts early in the war when Mary has retreated to her country cottage whilst her husband is away at sea. She hears on the radio that his boat has been sunk and that there are a few survivors. She hears that family members have been informed and she knows that there could be a telegram waiting for her at her London home but it is too late to return that evening and her telephone line isn’t working so she can’t ring a friend and ask them to check for her. During the sleepless night, while she waits for news, Mary thinks about her childhood and life to that point. The book only returns to the present at the very end when Mary visits the Post Office to make a call to London to find out what has happened to her husband.
Mary is the child of a widow living in London with her uncle. Unusually for the time her mother works and has a lover who is a married man. Mary’s grandparents live in the country and she spends idyllic summers there with her extended family and falls in love with her cousin Denys. Her uncle is an actor so she is immersed in the theatre and after her schooling she goes to drama school. Eventually she ends up studying dressmaking in Paris and then joining her mother’s business. Along the way she has a hopeless engagement and meets the man who will become her husband.
Although this isn’t intended to be an autobiographical novel it does reflect many elements of the life of the author and it feels authentic. It gives a great picture of middle-class life at the time and the choices available for women. I was bemused by how much drinking and smoking there is, especially among younger people. It hints too at things often kept quiet in families such as learning disability and hidden poverty. Mary is not without flaws – she takes her mother for granted, falls in love too easily and makes decisions on a whim. She is, however, very likeable and the book is sure in its representation of her growth to maturity.
The book’s title is from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson which features a woman whose love has left her uncertain whether he will ever return. It mirrors Mary’s situation which remains in our mind as we read the book. Like Mariana Mary is convinced that her love will never return.
The blurb for this book tried to convince me that it is similar to I Capture the Castle which is one of my all-time favourite novels but I would dispute that it is as good as Dodie Smith’s classic although it covers a lot of the same time period and issues. It also has an amazing cover on the book version I read.
This book only came to my attention because I found it in a charity shop and was entranced by the cover. I have previously read One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet by the same author which I had enjoyed. I highly recommend this novel which I found an excellent read.