Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Winston Graham's Marnie

Winston Graham's 1961 novel Marnie is best know today as the source of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 movie of the same title. The movie was somewhat controversial at the time for its relatively frank treatment of sexual problems and today if anything it divides audiences even more.

The novel was very successful at the time. Winston Graham (1908-2003) was a best-selling author most widely known for his Poldark historical novels. He also wrote thrillers and Marnie fits into the latter category. It’s a psycho-sexual crime novel with much more emphasis on sex than on crime.

Marnie is a thief. And a very successful one. Her crimes are intricately planned and daring.  She has devised a remarkably successful modus operandi. She invents a false identity for herself, talks her way into a job and then manoeuvres herself into a position where she has access to the company’s money. This is easy for her because she has a natural gift for mathematics which employers quickly recognise. She is also a very competent employee and even in the short time she stays in a job she usually wins promotion. After that the successful completion of the robbery is just a matter of waiting for the ideal time. It may take weeks, but the results are inevitable. Marnie has created a whole series of these false identities and has carried out a whole series of robberies but she covers her tracks very thoroughly indeed.

The fact is that Marnie is so gifted and capable that she could easily make a success of any job. She has no real need to steal. At least she has no material need to be a thief. But she does have a deep psychological need to do so. Marnnie has issues, and although she has never admitted it to herself those issues revolve around sex. It also has to be admitted that she enjoys stealing although again it’s as much the fulfillment of a psychological need as it is the excitement of the life she leads.

Marnie believes she is happy. She also believes that she steals in order to support her invalid mother. As with most things in Marnie’s life there’s a fair amount of self-deception in this, a self-deception that is entirely unconscious.

All goes well with her criminal career until she gets a job with a printing company called Rutland’s. She makes the mistake of staying there longer than usual, and she makes the further mistake of becoming involved on a social level with the people there. In particular with two men. Marnie has never had any interest in men, or in love or marriage or sex. She especially has had no interest in sex. She is a virgin and she intends to stay that way. Her mother has told her how disgusting the sexual aspects of marriage are and Marnie has no intention of finding out about such distasteful matters for herself. Despite this she allows herself to become friendly with two men, Terry Holbrook and Mark Rutland, both descendants of the original founders of the firm.

In the case of Terry it’s certainly not Marnie who is the instigator of things and she really dislikes him. With good reason, since he’s a rather unpleasant young man. With Mark it is different. He’s really the first man who has ever interested her as a person, the first man she’s ever felt at ease with, and the first man who seems to understand her. She’s fended off Terry’s advances quite successfully and she’s confident she can avoid going too far with Mark. She certainly would not let either of them touch her, but without realising what has happened she has developed rather a liking for Mark’s company.

She finally decides she has stayed too long, cleans out the company’s safe and disappears. But her one passion in life, her love of horses, has led her to make a fatal mistake. Mark has discovered where she keeps her horse stabled and tracks her down. She assumes that he will hand her over to the police but Mark has other plans. He intends to get the money back, but he also intends to marry Marnie.

This is where the book really starts to get interesting. The marriage is a complex web of misunderstandings, wishful thinking, deception and self-deception. The way Marnie sees it is that she has been blackmailed into marriage. The way Mark sees it is that he loves her and she loves him. He knows she is a strange woman but he believes that love will conquer all. He can save her.

As you might expect their wedding night is not a success. In fact nothing happens. Nothing happens for a week or more until finally Mark’s passions get the better of him. Marnie is so obviously appalled that that is the last time he tries to have sex with her. But he still loves her and he still believes that patience and understanding will prevail and that Marnie’s fear of sex can be overcome. After all psychiatrists are good at that sort of thing aren’t they? Surely a psychiatrist will find this to be a relatively simple matter. In fact her psychiatrist finds her to be anything but an easy case.

This is a mystery-suspense novel but the mystery and suspense come more from the unravelling of the secrets of Marnie’s past, and her mother’s past, than from the unravelling of a crime. In the course of this unravelling Marnie will make some startling discoveries but by the time she does this she has other problems to worry about. Her criminal past is also about to catch up to her. Now the challenge is not just to escape the chains of the past but also to stay out of prison.

If you think the explanation of Marnie’s problem is the sort of obvious explanation that a modern writer would choose you will be surprised. Writers in 1961 were rather more original and rather more subtle than writers of today and the explanation is not the obvious one at all.

The plot and the themes are rather similar to those of the film but with a few important differences. In particular the Marnie-Mark relationship is different in several respects, the explanation of Marnie’s sexual problems is somewhat more complex and also different in important respects compared to the film, and the ending is quite different. So if you’ve seen the movie don’t assume that this going to be the same story. Hitchcock and his screenwriter Jay Presson Allen use the same basic plot as a jumping-off point but they do different things with it so if you have seen the movie the novel is still well worth reading for both its similarities and its differences.

Marnie is a fine example of a crime novel in which crime is not really the focus. The author has other intentions besides writing a crime novel but even judged as a crime novel it’s exceptionally interesting. Of course the assumptions about psychiatry and about the solving of psychological problems purely by discovering the hidden trauma in the past are a little dated but Winston Graham handles the story with sufficient skill to make this a fascinating read.

Apart from being a kind of sexual mystery it is also a novel about identity, or rather different layers of identity. Marnie has other reasons for her constant re-invention of herself besides its usefulness to her as a criminal. She needs masks to hide behind and perhaps in some ways this is more important to her even than thieving. The lies we tell ourselves, the lies we tell others, the lies that we live, these are all issues addressed in this novel. The truth exists, but do we really want the truth?

Highly recommended.

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