Bleak House and Oliver Twist? Who had the nerve to call herself Dickens???
Um, actually, his great-granddaughter, that's who. And a darn good writer in her own right, though nothing like the wordy, flowery prose of the beloved (and sometimes reviled) Charles. After purchasing it, I soon realized it was the second book from the marvelous Persephone imprint -- I already owned Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which was waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.
Sadly, Mariana languished on the shelves for several months until a few weeks ago when I needed something comforting during a nasty ear infection. And it was an excellent comfort read, but despite the beautiful cover, this isn't the chick lit I was expecting. The story begins with a young woman, Mary, who is alone in a country cottage during World War II. She's just heard on the wireless that a British ship has been sunk -- the ship on which her beloved husband is sailing. She is in a state of complete panic because there's a terrible storm and all the phone lines are down, and she can't even walk into the village to try and contact anyone. She is utterly alone in her terror and misery, with no company but a little dog until the following morning.
The book then begins to flash back to Mary's childhood. She's never known her father, who died in the Great War, but she spends idyllic summer's at the family home in the country, surrounded by her loving grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins. She has an incredible crush on her cousin Denys, her first great love. The book then follows Mary through her childhood, adolescence, and life as a young woman growing up in London with her mother, a dressmaker, and her hilarious uncle Gerald, a somewhat ne'er-do-well actor. Mary struggles in school, flunks out of drama college, and learns dressmaking in Paris. We also follow Mary's love life -- the prologue never gives the husband's name, so I breathlessly followed the story to figure out which of her men could be lost at sea.
This is a really nice coming-of-age-story set during the inter-war years, one of my very favorite periods. It's touching and sometimes absolutely hilarious -- Mary gets into some really amusing scrapes. Her time at drama school is particularly funny. This book is loosely based on Monica Dickens' life, and what I also find very interesting is that Mariana was first published in 1940 when she was only 24! She never set out to become a writer, but sort of fell into it -- her first published work is One Pair of Hands, which is the story of her life working as a domestic (after she'd been a debutante!). I was so intrigued by this, having worked as both a professional pastry cook and a writer, that I instantly requested One Pair of Hands from my library. (Review to follow soon).
For all you Persphone fans, and for those who are just intrigued, please do yourself a favor and find this book. It's one of the Persephone Classics that are readily available here in the US, so if you can't find it in your local bookstore, it's easy to find online.