Today is Monica Dickens Day in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’d planned for May to be only novellas over here, but I couldn’t resist the chance to dig out 2 Persephone editions from the TBR and join in with Jane’s celebration. I’m glad I did, because I really enjoyed my first encounter with Monica Dickens.
Firstly Mariana (1940) which is part of the Persephone Classics range. On the Persephone website they say:
“We chose this book because we wanted to publish a novel like Dusty Answer, I Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, about a girl encountering life and love, which is also funny, readable and perceptive; it is a ‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon. But it is more than this.”
That just about sums it up. On the one hand Mariana is a very simple novel, about a young girl called Mary growing up and reaching adulthood just as World War II breaks out. She has various infatuations and gets her heart bruised, if not quite broken, before she meets the love of her life. What raises it above this very ordinary premise is the fond characterisation and Dickens’ wit.
Mary herself is a determinedly independent soul:
“People were kind and friendly and amusing, but they thought that companionship and conversation were synonymous and some of them had voices that jarred in your head. There was a lot to be said for dogs.”
She has been this way her whole life, as her school report testifies:
“Mary is a dear little girl…but we find a tendency in her to resent authority to the point of resistance. Although she is popular with her fellow pupils, I am afraid she is a bad mixer, being at the same time intolerant and unconfident of others and disinclined to enter into the heart of the community.”
She lives with her mother who works in a dress shop, as her father died in the previous war. There is also her reprehensible, indulgent Uncle Geoffrey who leaves her aged 8 to catch the Tube home by herself. He subsequently goes off to Hollywood to make his name in the movies. What stops this being entirely whimsical is the first chapter: we know the adult Mary is waiting for news of her husband whose ship has been sunk in the conflict. So alongside the fun characters and the wit is the background of potential tragedy; things do not seem to bode well for Mary, given the titular reference to Tennyson’s poem.
But in the meantime there is gentle fun to be poked at the trials and tribulations of young love:
“She told herself that she had been through a searing experience which had left her as a woman set apart from love – a tragic figure. This sustaining vision had tided her over the misery of the end of last summer, until the excitement and newness of Dramatic College had given her something else to think about.”
Dickens is a wise writer though, and so while she presents her characters with a slightly askance view, she shows how their feelings make them who they are, and who they will be:
“She had thought that [he]was the answer to everything, and when she had found out that he wasn’t she had been left alone with no one on whom to pin her burden of romantic devotion.”
I really enjoyed Mariana, which I wouldn’t have assumed would be the case given the subject matter. Dickens is very readable and I whizzed through the novel. I enjoyed spending time with all the characters (apart from an awful arrogant Bullingdon club type who seemed to have future-Prime-Minister written all over him) and I enjoyed Dickens unpretentious, thoughtful style.
“A corner of the jigsaw of Mary’s life had been made into the right pattern, by unknown means. It seemed that one had little control over one’s own destiny. All one could do was to get on with the one job nobody else could do, the job of being oneself.”
Secondly, The Winds of Heaven (1955), which had far fewer likeable characters and was almost bleak at times, but just saved from being so by the gentle endurance of the main character, Louise, who is widowed and destitute.
“She reached for the ashtray, for she wanted to tap off the ash frequently, as she had seen highly-strung, busy people do. Louise was neither highly-strung, nor busy, but when she was in London, among people who all seemed to be doing something important in a hurry, she liked to try and keep pace.”
The reason Louise is destitute is because her husband, Dudley, who seems to have had absolutely no redeeming qualities, died and left her with all his worldly debts.
“Everyone said Louise was ‘wonderful’ about Dudley’s death, but she could not be anything else, because, shocking though it was to her, she hardly cared.”
“there was nothing for it but that Louise should stay with her daughters in turn to pass the summer months. It was all arranged at an embarrassing family conclave, where no-one could say what they were thinking, and each tried to outdo the other in unselfishness.”
And so The Winds of Heaven follows Louise as she moves from one daughter to another. Miriam lives in a suburb in the Home Counties and is an absolute snob; Anne is the laziest person on earth who has somehow managed to marry a lovely man who runs a smallholding and genuinely cares for Louise; Eva is an actor in London and having an affair with a married man. They clearly all take after their father as they are selfish and self-absorbed. They are also, in different ways, all quite unhappy, and Louise has no idea how to help.
“she had wanted the futile thing she had made of her marriage with Dudley to be justified at least by the emergence of three happy lives.”
The novel is episodic in nature and through it we learn about Louise and her daughters. It’s a very mid-20th century English family, full of unspoken truths, supressed conflicts, and love. The somewhat depressing state of Louise’s familial relations is lightened by two beacons of light in her life: a friend, and her granddaughter. Gordon Disher is a bed salesman and pulp-fiction author who becomes: “The oddest, but most comforting friend she had ever made”. Ellen is Miriam’s daughter who like Louise, is a misfit in the family (a good thing, seeing as how appalling they all are) and who provides genuine kinship.
“how delightful to be a grandmother with a responsive grandchild, who opened her heart to you without embarrassment, because she had no-one to talk to at home”
The Winds of Heaven captures a particular moment in time, where women had only just begun to stop being exclusively homemakers and enter the workplace. Louise feels she can’t support herself, because she doesn’t believe she has any skills. This leaves her in genteel middle-class poverty, dependent on her daughters. She is part of a vanished world, and is not treated kindly by those who are finding their way in a new one. Dickens handles this social commentary with an incredibly light touch though, and so The Winds of Heaven often reads more like a series of acerbic character studies than a commentary on mid-twentieth century gender roles. It’s always highly readable, quietly building to a dramatic, tragic denouement, where hope survives.
To end, Monica had a rather famous great-grandfather. To tell you all about him, here are the incomparable Horrible Histories, channelling The Smiths: