Mariana opens as Mary Shannon, a young English wife, hears the news on the wireless that the naval destroyer on which her husband is serving has struck a mine. There are survivors—but in the midst of a storm, the telephone lines are down, and Mary has to wait until morning to go into town to get more news. Unable to sleep, she lies in bed and looks back on her life to this point: her childhood and education, her relationship with her independent mother and the rest of her extended family, and her faltering search for the right man. The title of the novel comes from Tennyson's poem of the same name, about a waiting woman whose lover "cometh not."
The novel is episodic. Mary is an engaging character, and Dickens is an engaging and humorous writer, but this long novel (377 pages) will not sustain the interest of every reader. It's the kind of leisurely, character-driven novel I enjoy, in the rather specialized genre of the English girl's interwar coming-of-age story. Other novels in the genre include Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927), E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families (1933), and, from a slightly later period, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948). Of these, Robertson's and and Smith's are my favorites. Both are written in the first-person, and capture not only the stories, but the distinctive voices of their young narrators. Perhaps especially for me, as a male reader, the first-person narration further collapses the distance between me and the female narrator, and makes it easier to enter her experience through her voice in my head.
Harriet Lane, in her introduction to the Persephone edition, writes that Dickens's handling of her material is "cinematic." Some of the most successful scenes early in the novel—the train journey to the family's summer home, the exhilarating hunt scene—unreel with cinematic vividness. Mary's uncle is an actor who makes a specialty of portraying slightly dotty monocled aristocrats, and eventually receives the call from Hollywood. Mary herself briefly attends acting school, before following her mother into the dressmaking business. Dressing up is important in the novel—costuming, surfaces that don't always conceal depths. Mary puts herself into various scenes—acting school, a Parisian romance—searching for one in which the depths will be as beautiful as the surfaces, in which she'll feel like she's living her own reality, not simply playing a part in someone else's scene.
Early in the novel, Mary's uncle invites her out to a Tom Mix cowboy feature. But Uncle Geoffrey falls in with a group of his theatrical friends, and ends up leaving Mary to go to the cinema alone. For Mary, the experience is emancipating. "She was one with the dashing, miraculous cowboy." Some art, some films and novels, creates that feeling of identification, that complete absorption in another life. But I never felt entirely absorbed in Mary's life.