Persephone Book Review: Mariana by Monica Dickens

Mariana, Monica Dickens

First Published 1940

Persephone Book #2


I’m going to start by making a pretty bold claim: this is my new favorite Persephone Book. I had very high expectations going into Mariana – I even listed it as one of my five-star TBR pile predictions – and I am thrilled to say it surpassed those expectations. In my opinion, it’s a perfect novel; its only flaw being that it had to end.

Simply put, Mariana was a joy to read. I’m sure I had a smile on my face throughout most of its 377 pages. The novel opens during the first year of WWII, with our heroine Mary Shannon anxiously awaiting news of the fate of her naval husband. His ship has gone down, and due to a power outage from a thunderstorm, Mary faces an interminable night before she will be able to learn whether he is listed among the dead. To stay sane, she reminisces over her life up until this point. The novel then jumps back into the past.

We view glimpses of Mary’s childhood; focusing on the idyllic holidays spent at her grandparents’ estate, Charbury. Here, Mary frolics with her cousins, and experiences her first love and her first heartbreak. We also spend time with Mary as she suffers through school, loss, and the growing pains of an awkward adolescence. Next comes an ill-advised stint at drama school, before a sojourn in Paris where she studies design and falls for a sophisticated Frenchman.

After a disastrous engagement, Mary returns to London where fate introduces her to her soul mate. An adorable romance leads to a wedding, and a honeymoon in Italy that is cut short by the storm clouds of war. The novel then returns to the present: the morning after that sleepless, stormy night, which will determine Mary’s future.

This delightful read is a coming-of-age novel that is still as relatable today as it would’ve been when it was published in 1940. There are so many brilliant moments that ring true to life. In addition to being an honest portrayal of growing up, and an engaging look at life in the ’20s and ’30s, it is also deeply funny. Mary’s final drama school performance, her disappointing haircut, and her bout of appendicitis are merely a few of my favorite comedic moments.

Monica Dickens’ characters feel like old friends, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with them. If you were to tell me that this was a memoir instead of a novel, I would absolutely believe you. Mary’s an endearing protagonist; and I adored her mother, Uncle Gregory, and her final love interest as well. The ending – as loathe as I was to see it come -was beyond perfect. I even let out a little cheer.

Mariana is  a charming, comforting, and comedic coming-of-age novel that I cannot recommend highly enough. I so wish Monica Dickens had written a sequel; but I’ll have to be satisfied with reading this gem again and again in the future. I’m already eagerly anticipating my reunion with Mary and her family and friends.



A Few of my favorite quotes:


“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.”


“Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.”


“It was with a shock of pitying surprise that she realized, in later years, that the grown-ups had missed the paradise which the children found so easily.”


“But Mariana was wrong. You couldn’t die. 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.”


22 thoughts on “Persephone Book Review: Mariana by Monica Dickens

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  1. Wow, to say this is your favourite Persephone is praise indeed. I have this on my nightstand at the moment – looking forward to reading it even more now! 🙂

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  2. I think there were some biographical elements to this novel. If you enjoyed this you should certainly read ‘One Pair of Hands’, and ‘One Pair of Feet’, also semi-autobiographical novels based on her time as a domestic servant and as a nurse respectively. I enjoyed them even more than Mariana.

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  3. I liked this one too and I should really reread it! It was one of my first Persephones since it was readily available in the U.S. I also really enjoyed One Pair of Hands, and I have a few of her other books on the TBR shelves — Thursday Afternoons, One Pair of Feet, and one of her books from the 1970s called Last Year When I Was Young. I found it in the donation pile at the library and could resist it for the low price of $1!

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  4. Hello, thanks for lliking my character development in the classics post.
    An insightful review. I found this book on the family bookshelves when I was fourteen, and found it funny. I do find the author’s post war novels better, though – when she analyses the passing of the age of the servant and of the ‘country house party’ lifestyle she depicts in the beginning of ‘Mariana’.
    Ah, and I did find ‘One Pair of Hands’ excellent. In the ancient edition I also found on those invaluable bookshelves, there was actually appended a debate in 1939 in which Monica Dickens participated on what was then called, ‘The servant problem’. I don’t think it is published with the book any more, which is a shame, as it is very instructiive of atttitudes of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lucinda! How lovely to have discovered Mariana at such a young age! I wish I had read it sooner, but am glad to have discovered it now. I can’t wait to read more of Monica Dickens work. I’m glad to hear you loved One Pair of Hands; it and One Pair of Feet seem to get lots of praise. The Servant Problem sounds fascinating too.


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