Jane Rusbridge started writing in her forties after returning to university to study English and Creative Writing. Her first novel The Devil's Music was nominated for the 2011 International IMPAC Literary Award. Her second, Rook, is one of nine launch titles to be published in 2012 by Bloomsbury's new literary imprint, Bloomsbury Circus. Rook explores the mystery surrounding Harold II's burial place, the hidden histories of the Bayeux Tapestry and the connections forged through three women's secret stories, past and present. Here Jane writes about Catherine Storr's Marianne Dreams.
Jane Rusbridge on Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr
Was the first book I loved Rudyard Kipling's Just-So stories, or The Ship that Flew by Hilda Lewis? Perhaps it was The Dawnchild by Beryl Irving? I'm not sure, but one book stands out from the many I read, or was read, in childhood, and since Norm's invitation to write a review coincided with my current preoccupation with why this should be, my choice of book was more or less instant.
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr is a book named by many as a favourite from childhood. Though I've not read it for 45 years, certain images from the story are still with me: the grinding movement of the boulders which surround the house in which Marianne is trapped; the hiss of long grass in a desolate landscape; a window scribbled out with heavy, black lines. Associated with these images is the emotion they drew from me, a turbulent but thrilling mix of delight and fear. I had never read a book like it, though not much later Alan Garner's The Owl Service affected me in a similar way. I still enjoy books which, for whatever reason, are unsettling.
I read Marianne Dreams when I was eight or nine. At that time I was devouring Enid Blyton's Adventure Series and The Silver Brumby Series by Elyne Mitchell, books which lined up in fat rows on my bedroom bookcase, but which I remember little about and no longer own. Entertaining and 'safe', these books satisfied my craving to read, not much more. I wasn't really aware there was more, then. Now, as a writer as well as a reader, I'm intrigued by our subliminal reactions to certain words, the power of association and connotation, and the way imagery suggests the unsaid. So, what is it about Marianne Dreams that haunts readers even into their adult years? To tackle that question, I must go away and re-read.
The first page or so does not appear to promise much. I am disappointed. Marianne visits a pony club as a treat for her tenth birthday. No immediate foreshadowing of what is to come, I note. Yet, the vocabulary is interesting. Did my eight-year-old self understand words like 'tractable', 'repressed', 'discordant' and 'prodigious'? I can't remember. Dialogue, with regular interjections of 'beastly', 'frightfully' and 'jolly nice', dominates the pages. Marianne Dreams was published in 1958, but the way the characters speak seems to be either 'terrifically' (it's catching) upper-class, or from a slightly earlier era.
A few pages in, Marianne falls ill, is confined to bed and, to relieve her boredom, is given her grandmother's workbox to tidy. Here, she finds a pencil and draws a house. Marianne then visits the house while dreaming, and the story slips from its rather genteel day-to-day setting, to somewhere altogether darker, a place where we share the 'nagging uneasiness' Marianne 'cannot account for'. The narrative has become more compelling.
Storr makes the most of our fascination with the unconscious, with the relationship between dreams and daily life. The house, with four windows and central front door, appears ordinary and familiar, with a 'thread of smoke rising from the chimney'. There are no other houses, or people, and a sense of unease emanates from the silent expanse of grassland where nothing moves, until Marianne hears the wind's approach from far away across the prairie. The grass 'writhes' at its roots; the chimney smoke is 'snuffed out'. Marianne, alone in the 'chill half-light', struggles with the door, unable to get inside. At climax points in the nightmare narrative, Storr heightens tension in this way, through sensory, concrete detail, though she is spare with description elsewhere. Sound, especially 'the continuous sibilant rustle of dry grass', is used to create atmosphere, but also smell and texture. The room in the house where the radio transmits the voices of the boulders smells of 'musty damp stone', for example; a boulder is 'damp and unyielding', 'shrinking' from Marianne's fingers in the darkness.
The pencil Marianne has found has special properties. After adding a face at one of the top floor windows of the house, in her dream she meets Mark, trapped in an upper room. Gradually, the dream world develops nightmarish qualities when, in a fit of anger directed towards Mark, Marianne draws eyes on the boulders and they become 'The Watchers', grinding their way towards the house, eyelids drooping closed only in the passing flash of light from a distant lighthouse. Marianne and Mark's need to escape becomes urgent, as they realize THEY know the children are there and are out to get them. The capital letters of THEY dominate the page in the same way as the 'Watchers' dominate Marianne's nightmares, and I'm amazed to discover the mere sight of the word triggers a tingling shock of recalled fear.
The chapters alternate between nightmare and sickroom. In both storylines, Storr employs characteristic elements of the uncanny, most obviously the inanimate becoming animate (the boulders), but also 'dis-ease' (Miss Chesterfield, who tutors Marianne while she is off school, has a pupil called Mark, who has polio), claustrophobia and entrapment (the children trapped in the dream house, and Mark confined, at one point, to his iron lung). Though Marianne at times controls what happens through her drawings, at others the children seem to be at the mercy of a malign and invisible influence which thwarts their escape, and the pencil is indelible.
Catherine Storr was a psychiatrist before she became an editor for Penguin books, and in her writings on child psychology she expressed the belief that children should not be protected from 'the frightening and unpleasant'. She wrote more than 30 books, the two for which she is best known, Marianne Dreams and Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, still in print. Her obituary, however - she died in 2001 - gives me pause for thought. Catherine Storr killed herself, at 87, apparently depressed at her failure to get any of her more recent writing published.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]