One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens
My salon about The Tortoise and the Hare — one of the great post-war English novels — is on February 1st. We’ll be discussing the novel and the real life story behind it. I’d love to see you there. (And if you haven’t, do read the novel.)
Bored of the debutante life, Monica Dickens chucked in her privileged existence and started work as a domestic cook-general when she was twenty. She was a mischievous young thing. She got expelled from St Paul’s Girls School for throwing her uniform over Hammersmith Bridge. And she was thrown out of RADA because she couldn’t act. After two years’ domestic work, she had a chance meeting with a young publisher and was offered the chance to write One Pair of Hands. It was a hit and her writing career started zipping along. Like so many young women who started off by horrifying her well-to-do parents, she became sensationally respectable.
She wasn’t just a writer after that. During the war, she nursed in Windsor and worked in a Spitfire factory. In the 1970s she was a Samaritan and helped them become well known in America. (She lived in Massachusetts for a long time, with her American husband.) Her experiences were brought directly into her fiction. Although One Pair of Hands is sometimes called a memoir, it is also known as a reportage novel, along with books like One Pair of Feet, which was based on her time as a nurse.
Reportage fiction was a twentieth century genre, not so far away from so-called auto-fiction, that gave readers a real sense of what it was like to be a certain sort of person or live a certain sort of life. Elizabeth Jenkins wrote Young Enthusiasts about her life as a teacher in a progressive school, inspired by Monica’s example. (Henry Cecil’s legal detective novels are also worth reading.) The point is not to produce a masterpiece of realism, as such, but to report, to show the reader an unfamiliar world. As such, plot becomes less significant.
With her experience at two ends of the class scale, Monica Dickens seems to have been well-placed to write reportage fiction. It has the prose-style of a pen and ink sketch. You might be at a dinner party listening to her tell stories about her former life. Very few of us cross the lines set down for our lives. (How many progeny of the bourgeois actually shuffle off the middle-class coil willingly?) Of course, it might have been slightly different for Monica. When you get presented at court you presumably have enough noblesse oblige to see you through whatever you are determined to do. Certainly, One Pair of Hands is full of a sense that whatever her relative position, Monica was rarely fazed. And good for her. (This was true of her throughout her life. When she was operated on for bowel cancer as an old lady she wrote to a friend, “It's not a full stop—just a semi-colon.”)
One Pair of Hands is a whirligig story that jumps from episode to episode, recounting her time as cook-general to various swanky London houses. She has the knack of an anecdote, at the small and large scale. As soon as I wondered if I might get bored, it was over. She writes in the plain style (not to be underestimated) and the whole thing has a cartoonish charm. It’s like a book of Bateman drawings. The characters are wonderfully grotesque, in the true sense — a blend of the comic and the hideous. It’s a clear, funny, and personal view of domestic work in the 1930s. I read it out of obligation and found myself staying up late.
Remarkably, therefore, it is perhaps the least interesting or relevant thing about Monica Dickens that she was great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, the greatest of English novelists.1 Presumably it helped to get her started, if the young publisher she met knew her pedigree. But you were already interested in the story of a debutante working as a domestic — it hardly needed the additional sales pitch. Now that copyright laws have the longevity of zombies, and the grandchildren of great writers are occasionally able to live like gentry (and guardians) of the work, this only endears her to me more.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is that she wrote One Pair of Hands in three weeks. And it’s still in print after seventy years: one of the best recommendations for a book there is. Rather unexpectedly, I plan to read more of her work.
Don’t forget to book your ticket to the salon about The Tortoise and the Hare — one of the great post-war English novels — on February 1st. We’ll be discussing the novel and the real life story behind it. I’d love to see you there. (And if you haven’t, do read the novel.)
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