Blog Post 34: Mariana (1940)
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.
Mariana opens with Mary, in a remote cottage during a storm, her telephone line down, waiting to hear news of her husband whose ship has struck a mine and sunk, with the loss of many lives. She has no way of finding out tonight if her husband is one of the survivors picked up by a merchant ship. She must wait for the morning to come. Meanwhile she replays the events of her life up until this point to keep herself occupied.
This is a coming-of-age novel, often compared to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love or Dodie Smith’s I capture the Castle. It’s truly a charming and witty read, a precedent for a later generation of novelists such as Jilly Cooper with her Prudence series. In fact, the marvellous Jilly Cooper has a quote on the back cover of my edition by Persephone Books. I galloped through it, pushed on by the breathlessness of the young narrator, whose idyllic 1920s childhood and 30s teenage years are brimmed full of nostalgia in the run-up to what we, the reader, know lies ahead. The opening is a stark reminder of this.
As with many other novels in this series of blog posts on #100WomenNovelists of the twentieth century, Mariana is semi-autobiographical and, though it is extremely accessible, this doesn’t mean there is no depth. As well as the intimate period details, there is a strong sense of place (who will ever forget Charbury, her grandparents’ country house?). But ultimately, this is a story of a young woman finding herself in a world that has largely cushioned her in girls’s schools, a (disastrous) drama school and as a lady’s companion. Her mother is central to this. Often strapped for cash, she has brought up Mary pretty much single-handedly, has always worked incredibly hard, been a solid, surprising role model. But Mary only wants one thing: to be married.
On a stormy night during the War, Mary waits to see if her childhood ambition will be crushed. Is she now a widow? In the agony of ignorance, she has a moment of clarity:
You had to go on. 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…Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me. There’s only me now.