The waking is the hardest part
by Gordon Campbell
Catherine Storr killed herself in January 2001, at the age of 87. She had been depressed for some time – but ‘not clinically’ she had told friends – due to her failure to get any of her recent works published. She had kept on writing right until the end, regardless. In her teens and 20s, Storr had endured any number of rejections from publishers – but this time, she believed her style had gone irrevocably out of fashion. In an obituary in the Independent, Ann Thwaite quoted from a witty letter that Storr had written to her shortly before her death :
I see that my time must henceforth be spent in making waistcoats for [ daughter] Emma’s children’s soft animals. I have already made a smocked dress for a Miss Pig, and a silk waistcoat for a rabbit. Now I am about to make two beautiful black waistcoats for a dog and a panther. But it doesn’t seem to me a very promising profession. I’d rather be writing, if I thought what I write was ever going to be read by anyone else.
These days, Storr is best remembered for two books in particular. In Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, her kind and resourceful heroine regularly outwits the foolish and pathetic wolf who is out to catch and eat her. The remarkable novel for young teenagers called Marianne Dreams is another kettle of fish entirely.
In this book, Marianne falls sick on her birthday and is kept in bed and tutored at home for months, after catching what sounds like glandular fever. She finds relief from boredom with a pencil that she finds in her great-grandmother’s old polished mahogany workbox – and with it, she draws pictures that recur in her dreams. While asleep, she makes regular contact with a local boy called Mark who is suffering from polio, and who is being tutored by the same governess.
The pencil drawings that Marianne makes prove to be indelible. Nothing drawn can be retracted, or erased. The drawings define the physical and emotional landscape in which she and Mark are fated to meet, argue, and – eventually – co-operate, in order to survive the forces that Marianne has angrily unleashed in their dream world. In 1988, Marianne Dreams was made into a film called Paperhouse by the maverick British director, Bernard Rose.
Wrong choice, perhaps. At the time, Rose had just made a controversial (and much banned) music video for the band Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and a couple of years later he made the very successful horror film Candyman. In his hands, the story became a peculiar onset-of-puberty melodrama complete with phallic lighthouse, fiery vaginal openings in the front yard and violent encounters with Marianne’s estranged father, who played no part in the book.In the film, he stalks her dreams. Paperhouse is visually flashy and has some striking sound effects, but it can’t be recommended for children, or to anyone who likes the book. Reportedly, Storr hated the ending in particular.
Down the years, the central role that dreams play in the narrative has helped to earn Marianne Dreams a fairly sizeable cult following in its own right. This happened long before the Nightmare on Elm Street series – or Inception for that matter – made the dodgy relationship between dreams and real life a familiar theme of mainstream entertainment. Certainly, something keeps drawing people back to this book. In 1972, it was turned into a workmanlike television series called Escape Into Night, and in 2004, the British composer Andrew Lowe Watson made Marianne Dreams into an opera, using a libretto that Storr had written in 1999.
I think the book endures for two main reasons. Storr is uncannily good at getting back inside a pre-teen girl’s emotional life. Marianne rings true – her naivety, enthusiasm, boredom, irritability, anger and resourcefulness are all there, pretty much note perfect. Secondly, while her dreams may be implausibly linear – they are as relentlessly goal-directed as the dream sequences in Inception – they also have a flat, two dimensional quality to them (especially in the sequences involving the Stone Watchers) that is also very convincing.
So who was Catherine Storr? She was born Catherine Cole in 1913, the daughter of a London barrister, and she wrote her first story – an impulsive ode to the moon – at the age of ten, and deemed it to be rather good. Good enough anyway, to spark a lifelong determination to make her mark as a writer. Success proved hard to come by. After a series of rejections from publishers, Storr threw herself at 27 into training as a doctor, and eventually became a psychiatrist – partly motivated by the touching hope that medicine would put her in contact with the realities of life, and infuse her writing with the depth that book publishers might be looking for. Ironically, Storr had just signed up for medical school when her first children’s book got accepted for publication. Reportedly, it was not reviewed, and vanished virtually without trace.
Like many of the heroines in Storr’s books, Marianne is something of a stand-in for the author. Storr was already in her mid 40s when she wrote this book, and yet – as mentioned – she is remarkably good at capturing the tone and temper of being a child. It seemed to come naturally to her.“ I started writing when I was 10 years old,” she once told the Something About The Author series, “ and it became an addiction. I think in story form…I don’t write with a child readership in mind. I write for the childish side of myself, and I find it often acts as psychotherapy.”
In similar fashion, Marianne pours out her feelings into her drawings, with good and bad consequences for everyone involved. A raging argument with Mark causes her to take it out on him in the dream drawings – and this almost kills him in real life. In passing, Marianne Dreams provides an accurate portrait of the anger and cruelty in children, and their capacity for remorse. Since the drawings cannot be erased, Marianne’s repentance requires her to add elements that may help to cure Mark, both physically and psychologically.
Eventually, the pair not only reconcile but try to escape together on bicycles from the dream house – which has become surrounded by malevolent Stone Watchers, whose fragmented threats to harm the children get picked up on the radio inside the dream house. The children manage to break through the hostile cordon set up by the Watchers, and they head towards a beacon of light that Marianne has added to the pictures. In fact, this book could easily have been called To The Lighthouse, if Virginia Woolf hadn’t got there first.
A few years later, Storr wrote an under-rated sequel called Marianne and Mark. This is a quite different sort of story set five years later – a teen romance, credibly handled, as the two 15 year olds try and cope with the stormy feelings of adolescence. Again, the story is true to a 15 year old’s infinite capacity for mistakes, and much of the story hinges on Marianne’s tendency to make wrong judgements about people, based on the flimsy evidence available to her at that age.
As it happens, Storr’s personal life was no more tranquil than Marianne’s. She married the psychiatrist Anthony Storr and had three children with him before they divorced in 1970. She then married the economist Lord Thomas Balogh, the chief economic adviser to Harold Wilson and the British Labour Party during the 1960s and 1970s. Balogh was an eccentric, polarizing figure and the relationship was said to be a ‘very interesting and very demanding one’ until his death in 1985. With both her husbands, Storr once wrote, their wit had been the basis of their initial attraction for her.
At times, it is all too clear that Marianne Dreams was written in 1958. The ‘ real life’ settings – the pony club, the governess, the patient upper middle class mother – seem to have wandered in from an earlier, almost pre-war era. What makes it feel modern is the dream engine that drives the plot. As mentioned, these dreams are very linear – there is nothing of the bent, multi-level logic that makes say, the “Restless” dream episode in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (the finale of season four) into such an effortless tour de force.
At the end though, Marianne finds a place of contentment. She reaches one of those points in childhood when the whole wide world seems to be benevolent, and waiting for what you will become :
Everything seemed to be resting; content;waiting.
Mark would come; he would take her to the sea. Marianne lay down on the short, sweet-smelling turf. She would wait too.