Catherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams contains a perfect example of what Humphrey Carpenter calls the “Secret Garden”, found in so many classic kids’ books from Alice in Wonderland onwards — those Arcadian pocket-worlds that encapsulate an idealised childhood, part fantastic imagination, part golden-tinged nostalgia. In Storr’s book, the “Secret Garden” is a dream world 10-year-old Marianne creates through drawings made in her waking life. Bed-bound for weeks after an unspecified illness, she finds a special pencil (“one of those pencils that are simply asking to be written or drawn with”), thereafter referred to as The Pencil, in her grandmother’s button box. With it, she draws a standard child-style house, and when she sleeps, dreams of walking up to this very house, but being unable to get in. When she wakes, she adds a knocker to the door, and, for someone to answer it, a face at an upper window. Both details have been added to the house when she next dreams, but the boy at the window can’t answer her knock because the house has no stairs inside and (something he doesn’t admit immediately) he can’t walk. So Marianne starts working on interior drawings, too. In her waking life, because she can’t attend school till she’s well again, she’s being taught by a governess, who mentions another home-visit pupil, a boy called Mark whose illness has left him too weak to walk. When Marianne learns the boy in the dream-house is also called Mark, she realises her dream world isn’t entirely her own.
In the dream world, though, the two children don’t exactly hit it off. Both are tetchy from being bed-bound for so long, and Mark is resentful of the idea he might be living in a world Marianne has created. After a particularly heated spat, she punishes the dream-Mark by scribbling him out (though this only puts bars over his window) and, worse, by adding a single, watching eye to each of the boulders she drew outside the house. When she next dreams, she finds Mark terrified of “THEM”, the watching rock-creatures crowding the house. Regretting her anger, but unable to undo it (what she draws with The Pencil can’t be erased), the story comes to be about Marianne encouraging Mark to regain the physical strength and will to walk so they can escape the house and the watching, threatening presences.
Aside from its dream world fitting neatly into Humphrey Carpenter’s idea of the “Secret Garden”, Marianne Dreams has other similarities to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel from which Carpenter got the name. In Burnett’s book, the slightly spoiled 10-year-old Mary Lennox, orphaned and sent to live with a reclusive uncle, discovers an abandoned, walled rose garden and in it comes to not only befriend her withdrawn and seemingly crippled cousin Colin (who, like Mark, can’t, or won’t, walk), but to engage in a wholesale healing of the family: Colin of belief in his physical frailty, herself of her spoiled nature, and her uncle of both his extreme grief over the death of his wife and his estrangement from his son. The main difference between the two novels is that, while Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden is basically working at healing the adult world (where Uncle Archibald’s mourning for his wife is the cause of all the other problems) in Marianne Dreams the focus is entirely on the children, not just in recovering from their illnesses, but in their working together to overcome the self-centredness which their long periods of convalescence have led to. There’s a feeling that they’re taking a step away from the dependence of childhood towards taking a fuller responsibility for their own lives.
Storr’s book has been adapted a few times. The author turned it into an opera libretto in 1999. In 1972 it was adapted for television as Escape into Night (made in colour, but only surviving in black & white). This six-part series stuck faithfully to the book — perhaps too faithfully, as the story of Marianne’s coming to understand the relationship between her drawings and the dream world inevitably leads to a lot of similar-seeming scenes, though perhaps I only feel this because I watched them back-to-back — but it also comes across as slightly darker, as, somehow, showing the bizarre one-eyed stones surrounding the house makes them that much creepier. My first encounter with the story, though, was in a very different form, the 1988 film Paperhouse.
I can’t think of many children’s books which, when adapted, turn into films for adults — and I wonder if that was always the intent for Paperhouse (rated 15 in the UK), because, though it ups the scares of Catherine Storr’s novel, it doesn’t do the usual horror cliché of turning childhood itself into a scary world — there’s no tinkly toy piano music, or ghostly nursery rhymes echoing down empty corridors — so it’s still a story that’s for children rather than being about them. In fact, apart from the level of scares (always a difficult thing to judge), I think it would actually be a good film for young adolescents, as it’s very much about their experience — about the first tentative moves towards forging deeper emotional attachments away from mum & dad, and about the tug-of-war between growing up and remaining a child. (Now I come to think of it, the two main characters’ lingering in bed after their illnesses could well be a metaphor for lingering in a state of dependent childhood, putting off the first steps into independence and adulthood.)
Marianne from Storr’s novel is now Anna, a girl very much on the verge of adolescence. One moment she’s bunking off school to try on makeup and ask her friend about snogging (“Like kissing a vacuum cleaner”), the next she’s playing hide-and-seek. In contrast to the book (where the mother is pretty much a cipher), in the film, Anna’s relationship with her mother is strained by some very teenage tantrums. The real transformation from novel to film, though, is the father. In the novel, though he’s living at home, the father is all but absent — he pops into the story only briefly, to do those things a standard father of the 1950s was expected to do, i.e., authorise a few key decisions and knock in a nail. In Escape into Night, his irrelevance to the plot is smoothed over by having him working abroad. In Paperhouse, not only is he working abroad, but Anna is torn between feeling abandoned by him and being grateful he’s not there because of how he scares her sometimes when he drinks. In the film’s dream world, the stones-with-eyes (“THEM”) central to the novel’s sense of threat are replaced by a blinded father figure wielding a hammer. (This, more than anything, must be what makes it a 15 certificate, the way it turns the threat into a very real, domestic one, rather than a generalised, fantasy version of anxiety.)
All this brings a muted aspect of the novel to the fore. Anna’s ambivalence about her father is an ambivalence about males in general. Sitting up in bed after a checkup from the doctor (here, a woman — Anna’s world, including teachers and friends, is almost entirely female), she says, “I don’t like boys,” then immediately adds one at the window of the house she’s drawing, as though her unconscious has other things to say on the matter. Far more powerful than the horror element of the film is the sense that Anna is learning to transfer the complex feelings she has for her father to a more fitting male figure of her own age. Paperhouse’s scares and dream world shocks can seem a bit over the top — as can Anna’s teenage histrionics, though “OTT” may well be the definition of teenage histrionics — but the film ends with a real sense of combined loss and gain, all because of how Anna has matured from a self-centred child to someone who can start to have fuller, more mature relationships.
Catherine Storr was, at the time she wrote Marianne Dreams, married to Anthony Storr, author of some of my favourite books about psychology — his The Dynamics of Creation (1972) and Solitude (1988) are both very readable and interesting delves into the complexities of two subjects Marianne Dreams also touches on: creativity (Marianne, in the novel, is not great at drawing, and her frustrations at how her lack of skill has a real effect on the dream world make up one of the novel’s strands), and the pleasures and pains of being alone.