Friday, 8 September 2017

When Marnie Was There: by Joan G Robinson

Earlier this year we went on holiday to Norfolk. I'd only been there once before, to Yarmouth, years ago, and I didn't have very high expectations. I thought it was going to be flat and rather dull.

I was so wrong! In North Norfolk, where we were, the countryside was lovely: sloping fields, sometimes with rows of daffodils, woods, streams - and just something about the light. The towns and villages were compact, with characterful coffee shops, there was Nelson's birthplace, Blickling Hall and Sheringham Park - and then there was the coast. Salt marshes, great stretches of sand, circling birds - and vast skies.

At a shop at Cley Nature Reserve I bought the first in a series of mysteries set on the Norfolk coast, written by Elly Griffiths. (Brilliant - for a review, see here.) After I'd written about it, a friend who lives in Norwich, writer Paeony Lewis, asked if I'd read a children's book called When Marnie Was There, by Joan G Robinson - it too was set in Norfolk, and she had a feeling I might like it.

She was absolutely right, and I don't know why I hadn't heard of it before. It was published in 1967 - I was a teenager then, so I suppose I was a bit too old for it and perhaps that's why I missed it. As with the Elly Griffiths books, the shifting, changing seascape is an integral part of the story; you can't always be sure what you're seeing - or even, perhaps, when you're seeing it. People from the Neolithic, Vikings, smugglers - none of these would look out of place here.

So it really doesn't seem too surprising when lonely orphan Anna, staying with an elderly couple for the summer, sees a girl in a white dress with long pale hair in the window of a house across the creek - a girl whom no-one else seems to have noticed. Anna is a self-contained child and a lonely one. She doesn't know how to make friends and she's given up trying. 'She knew perfectly well... that things like parties and best friends and going to tea with people were fine for everybody else, because everyone else was 'inside' - inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside. And so these things had nothing to do with her. It was as simple as that.'

But it's different with Marnie. The two girls are drawn to each other, and Anna - in this world of the sixties, where a child can spend hours by herself on the sea shore, in a boat, sometimes with an eccentric old man called Wuntermenny - is happier than she has ever been. As she spends time with Marnie, Anna blossoms; she becomes happier and more confident, more able to reach out to other people. I won't spoil the story - but at the end of it, Anna has learnt a great deal about herself in all sorts of ways - from her encounter with the mysterious Marnie, she's gained so much.

I can't find an image of the copy I have, but here's a still from the film. made by Studio Ghibli.

From the postscript, written by Joan Robinson's daughter, it's clear that this has been a novel which has appealed to people all over the world - she tells the story of a Japanese man, who, having read the book as a teenager, set out to find the place where it was set, with only the book itself as a guide. In the book, the village is called Little Overton - but that wasn't much help, because its real name is Burnham Overy. Still, he took the train to Kings Lynn, as Anna did in the book, caught the bus along the coast as she did - and recognised the place by a windmill which features in the book.

First published in 1967, my edition was printed in 2014. A film was made of it recently. And this doesn't surprise me. It may be set in the mid-twentieth century, but the emotional landscape of Anna - initially bleak, cold and lonely - ensures, sadly, that it will always be relevant; there will always be children who feel they don't fit, who are always on the outside looking in. And the physical landscape of the Norfolk coast - wild, empty, sea-washed and so very beautiful - provides a perfect reflection of Marnie's inner life, and a  perfect setting for a story where the barriers between reality and imagination shift and rearrange themselves - like the sand dunes and marshes themselves.

This review first appeared on Awfully Big Reviews, a site where children's books - both recent and not so recent - are reviewed.


  1. How delightful that the gentleman took the trouble to travel all the way there! I've done that, of course, with Shrewsbury, when I was reading the Brother Cadfael novels, but it's a real place with a real name, no having to recognise it by landmarks such as windmills!

    I've been to Sheringham, as I have a friend living there, though it was many years ago. I found a shop selling stuff by local artists/crafters and bought my souvenirs and gifts there rather than in a big shop selling mass produced stuff made in China. It gave me the idea of doing the same everywhere on my trip, if possible.
    Final Day At The Writers Festival

  2. Thanks for this delightful perspective on When Marnie was There. Having read several of Joan G Robinson's books, I can't fathom why she isn't better known. Her writing is so evocative, and captures the essence of a solitary childhood beautifully. I review kids books for a book blog called Bookstoker. I've reviewed Marnie in the past and would be interested in your opinion sometime. Kirstin

  3. Thanks for your comment - I agree, it's a very evocative book. I will see if I can find your review.