Somerset, 1868. The sea-side town of Clevedon is famous for its sea-cures. Visitors flock there to use the bathing-machines and be ‘dipped’ in the sea. Fourteen-year-old Marnie works with her mother, who prides herself on her expert dipping.
Marnie is beautiful but illegitimate, and was crippled by polio when she was five. She is treated as an outcast by the townsfolk. Their comments can be hurtful, and she avoids them by swimming as often as she can – the sea is her element – and fantasizing about her absent father who, she believes, will one day return for her.
Lady de Clevedon arrives from London with her son, Noah, who is a few years older than Marnie. The big house is opened and Lady de Clevedon is dipped by Marnie’s mother. Marnie meets Noah and challenges him to swim with her. In return, Noah sneaks her inside his home shows her around. For the first time, Marnie feels valued and wanted. Noah’s different from the local boys – she is sure he loves her. But does Noah, the rich young gentleman from London, feel the same?
We are in Thomas Hardy territory here as Marnie succumbs to an obsessive passion with little basis in reality. Her fantasies about her father and her future with Noah gradually obscure the realities of her humble life. Nothing must be allowed to threaten her future with Noah.
I enjoyed the glimpse into 19th-century sea-cures with the bathing-machines and the dippers. However, I’m afraid I found it difficult to believe in Marnie. She’s extraordinarily naïve for a working-class girl and completely self-absorbed as she ignores everyone else around her – even her dying mother. It’s an unattractive trait, and I found it hard to care as much about her as I wanted to.