Original Language: English
Author: Joan Robinson
Place of Publication: London
Genre: Children’s novel
Edition: Collins Modern Classics (2002 edition, second-hand copy)
Other Editions and Translations: No other editions are currently in print in English. The book has apparently been translated into several languages, although I can only confirm that there is a Japanese version (「思い出のマーニー」) as well as a German one (Damals mit Marnie).
Update: If you are UK-based, you can now purchase a Kindle version of When Marnie Was There on amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere, you’ll still have to seek out second-hand copies of the book.
When Studio Ghibli announced earlier this month that its next project was to be an adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There, with Yonebayashi Hiromasa directing, I quickly – after reading unequivocally raving reviews – searched for a copy. First published in 1967 to “great success” (283) and even featuring in BBC children’s programme Jackanory in the 1970s, a few decades on When Marnie Was There had all but disappeared, remaining a precious memory for people who had loved the book as children but could no longer find it anywhere. In 2002 Marnie resurfaced, briefly, as part of a Collins Modern Classics series, only to go out of print again. The copies that are to be had now – at least in the original, English version – are mostly second-hand, as was the one I eventually purchased. My copy previously lived in the Cumbria County Library from 2003 onwards, where it lingered, and, if we are to go by the check-out slip on the first page, grew dusty on the shelves, long forgotten.
Elsewhere, its fate seems less dismal – at least Studio Ghibli’s interest in the story gives us a hint that Marnie still lives on in other parts of the world. It appears on a list of 50 children’s books personally recommended by co-founder Miyazaki Hayao (see also here for the list in 日本語) in 2010, something that must have surely raised its profile and boosted sales in Japan even further – so fingers crossed that the Studio Ghibli film will have the same effect, also in the book’s native Great Britain.
When Marnie Was There is, in every sense, a very fitting story to be taken on by Studio Ghibli: its protagonist is, like nearly every Ghibli heroine, a young girl that has yet to find her way in the world. She is, however, somewhat more unfortunate than Kiki, Shizuku, Chihiro & co – Anna is an orphan. Her father disappeared long ago, her mother died in a car accident during the honeymoon with her second husband and Anna’s grandmother a few years thereafter, leaving her with deep emotional scars. The girl’s caretakers are now the Prestons, a nice enough couple, but Anna, full of hatred over the ‘abandonment’ by her biological family, keeps her distance from her foster parents. She doesn’t only refuse to refer to Mrs. Preston as ‘Mum’, but rarely even calls her ‘Auntie’, usually addressing her with no name at all. Anna is also disconnected from everyone else, including children her age, as she just doesn’t see herself belonging anywhere: “[E]veryone else was ‘inside’ – inside some sort of invisible magic circle. But Anna herself was outside.” (10)
One summer, after having been ill for a few weeks, Anna is sent to a little village by the seaside in Norfolk, where she stays with the Peggs and spends her time roaming the beach and marshes. It is there that she meets Marnie, the girl that becomes her first friend. For Anna, who has always avoided other children, it’s all a completely new experience – to be playing with someone else, to laugh over silly things together, to say thoughts out loud and express her feelings rather than keeping them buried deep inside. Marnie however isn’t like any other person she has come across before, chatting with her right away and ignoring, for example, the ‘ordinary face’ that Anna habitually uses to keep people away. She has, Anna thinks, “something almost magical about her” (71).
While Anna is pleased to have such a special friend and happy to oblige with Marnie’s request that she must not tell anyone about her, she soon notes things that are a little strange. Although the girls agree to meet on specific days, Marnie doesn’t always show, but instead pops up randomly, Anna noting that “it did seem very odd the way Marnie always appeared right beside her when she least expected it” (120). Her appearances are not just unpredictable, but often impossibly sudden as Anna will see her at the far end of the beach in one moment, but right next to her a second later. When confronted about these strange turns, her friend however always denies it (“Silly, of course not! I’ve been here ages”, 68) and as if suggests that Anna is the one that is confused about their meeting times and places. Although Anna always forgives her quickly (in part, because she feels no longer sure about anything), to the reader this Marnie, who is “angry one minute and laughing the next” (114) and who always seems to want to be in the right, doesn’t seem all that nice, but rather overbearing and almost unpleasant at time.
Marnie is thus a puzzling, mysterious figure – indeed, Anna’s interactions with her begin to feel ominous, hinting that things aren’t quite what they seem to be. Even the girls’ first encounter starts with them wondering whether the other is real. The same day, when Anna returns home after meeting with Marnie, she feels that when entering the Peggs’ house, “it seemed like another world” (71). More eerie things happens when the girls play a question game, and Marnie asks about Anna’s life at the summer home:
Anna opened her mouth to answer and found, to her surprise, that she could not remember. [...] What was it like at the Peggs’? Not one single thing she could remember. It had all gone out of her head as completely as if someone had wiped a sponged across a blackboard. Marnie, who had seemed only half real, had now become more real than the Peggs. It was odd. (81)
She is eventually able to recall some details when she closes her eyes for a moment, but something even more bizarre happens then – Marnie has disappeared, only to resurface in another spot, further away, immediately accusing Anna of suddenly vanishing from her sight. While many chapters in When Marnie Was There describe a happy friendship between two young girls, there is always the odd sentence that crops up and makes it feel a little less innocent. Marnie, we learn, has her room at the back of her house so that she will not be disturbed in her sleep. Anna, meanwhile, finds that she “often dozed off when she was alone these days” and “[o]nly when she was with Marnie did she really feel wide awake” (138). Most ominous however is when the girls have a conversation one day that Anna realises they already had – but in reverse. With the utterances made by one of them, now made by the other, Anna observes, “How funny, it almost seems as if we’re changing places” (145) – and leaving us to ponder what it is that is happening and if it is all good.
For Ghibli fans, there is also the question what the Japanese animation studio will do with this sense of the uncanny that pervades a good chunk of When Marnie Was There, for although a number of Ghibli stories are rather dark, they are not sinister in mood and tone (I confess: there were moments when I felt that Marnie was… creepy). The magic of Marnie is also of a different type than what we have seen in the many productions of Miyazaki & co, it is not a tale that is full of spirits and fantastical creatures like in「千と千尋の神隠し」(Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi/Spirited Away) and「ハウルの動く城」(Hauru no Ugoku Shiro/Howl’s Moving Castle), but its otherworldliness is more subtle – if it truly exists at all. Other parts of Marnie align more readily with films from the animation studio, particularly once we get to the section of the book where Anna meets the Lindsay family. Visiting from the London, the Lindsays – father, mother and a boisterous flock of five children ranging from toddler-age to teenager – are well-off but, given their social status and the times, anything but posh. They generally do away with formalities and swoop Anna right up into their warm, loving household, even challenging her negativity – her glass-half-empty perspective of everything – as the Lindsays embrace even the worst scenarios with cheer.
Yonebayashi’s handling of this defeatist attitude of Anna is another aspect I am curious to see transferred onto the screen: it is not only Marnie that isn’t an easily likeable character, but Anna herself is a challenging heroine. Although she is a victim of tragic circumstances – having lost her entire family when she was young – and although we can sympathise with her outsider status, it is also obvious that her loneliness is to some, if not a large part created by herself. She repeatedly pushes people away, never actually giving them the chance to befriend her. Her habit of interpreting everything negatively is deeply ingrained and, when she finds money for her upkeep in her foster home, concludes that her caretakers are being “paid to love her”. Deeply upset about Mrs Preston hiding this fact from her, Anna however fails to see that the foster mother only doesn’t want her to know so Anna doesn’t feel less loved than any other child. Equally, when Mrs Pegg fails to confront the girl about sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night, it is not because the woman “now knew that Anna was not worth bothering about” (111), but because Mrs Pegg realises that her little guest is already troubled enough and doesn’t need more scolding.
It may not be much that happens in When Marnie Was There, but its suspenseful mood makes it a page-turner. I read it in less than two days – some chapters at 2 am, while overnighting at an airport, others right when I woke in the morning because I simply had to finish the book. It is also profoundly moving or – I will quote an Amazon reviewer again – “achingly sad in parts” (Clare). For although it is the mystery of Marnie that drives the plot, the story digs deep into the emotional hurt of another little girl that feels very, very alone in the world and offers a candid exploration of that pain that, thanks to an unexpected twist, ultimately becomes an uplifting tale.
Overall verdict: When Marnie Was There is mysterious, even surprisingly ominous, but also digs deep into a child’s loneliness and emotional hurt. While its gloomier parts are unlike what we have seen in most Studio Ghibli films, it is a tale that I can’t wait to see adapted by the Japanese studio – hopefully with that unsettling sense of darkness intact.
Note: All quotes from Robinson, Joan G. When Marnie Was There. London: Collins, 2002.
- My edition of When Marnie Was There features a postscript by Deborah Sheppard, the daughter of the author. It includes some interesting information, most of all a fascinating anecdote about one of the book’s readers. Although there are no details about the identity of this individual (no hint of name or anything), I would like to half-imagine it was someone from or somehow connected to Studio Ghibli:
Thirty years after the book was published, I heard how a Japanese man had recently arrived in the village looking for ‘Little Overton’. Many years before, as a young teenager, he had read When Marnie Was There in Japanese. The book had made a great impression on him and he very much wanted to see the place where the story was set.
It was the end of September and he had booked a tour from Japan to London for a few nights. He spoke very little English and he had no idea where ‘Little Overton’ was. All he had was a copy of the book as his guide. So he took the train to King’s Lynn, as Anna had done; and finally caught the bus that goes along the coast. The bus was full of people, who were all very kind – but no one knew where ‘Little Overton’ was. At each stop the passengers got off until he was the only person left. He began to get rather anxious. Then as the bus turned he saw the windmill.
“Stop, stop!” he said, “This must be it!” And he leapt off the bus. But the village wasn’t ‘Little Overton’, it was Burnham Overy.
He made his way to the pub. There the landlord assured him that he had found the right place, and took him down to the creek. He was thrilled to be there at last. To see the tide rising, the boats swinging at anchor, the wild marsh and birds and the house that had been the start of it all.
That evening, while looking for somewhere to stay, he passed a house with a Japanese name. He met a lady there who could not only understand the story of his journey, but was also from the same place in Japan. (284-285)
- When Marnie Was There was featured on the BBC children’s programme Jackanory, which was created to get children’s interested in reading. It ran daily from 1965 until 1996, and later returned in 2006 for two one-off episodes. Usually children’s novels or folk tales (to name a few: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, various tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen) were read out by an actor seated in an armchair over the course of several episodes, sometimes accompanied by specially commissioned drawings or also photography (as was the case with When Marnie Was There). I wasn’t able to find any copies of the Marnie reading, but a few Jackanory stories have been released on DVD.
- Studio Ghibli’s official Marnie website (in Japanese & only a home page there so far).