15 March 2013

An Open Book by Monica Dickens

During quiet moments at the library, or procrastinating the sorting of a bin full of books, I type various authors' names into our catalogue's search engine.  Oh the interesting things you find that you never knew were hiding on shelves in other locations.  A bit of autobiographical writing from Monica Dickens popped up and sounded too interesting to pass up.  When my hold arrived it was really quite disgusting with its battered edges, yellowed jacket tape and food stained throughout.  How it has missed the weeding process I'll never know but it was a good thing for me that it had.

Meandering through moments in her life, Dickens begins with a description of her family home, a late Georgian house in West London.  Her mother is nearly forty and exhausted by motherhood and the impact of enduring a miscarriage as well as the death of twin babies.  Monica's earliest memories are from around the age of two with maids throwing their aprons over their heads in terror that the Germans would invade at any moment during the Great War.  I loved her simplistic recollections of her parents...

'My mother was a paisley coat with a band of fur round the bottom at eye level, on which I clung and hung and buries my yawns while she chatted interminably on street corners.
My father was a front door banging and shout of, 'Where's my baby?', and a pyramid of soft sawdust growing on the dining room carpet where I sat while he cut out jigsaw puzzles on his treadle fretsaw.'

A clever girl with a strong personality she was eventually expelled from St Paul's School.  No light is shone on the details but things couldn't have been all that terrible as Monica was accepted at a finishing school in Paris before being presented at Court.  With the help of an endocrinologist and some thyroid pills the young debutante shed her puppy fat to become something of a swan.  The means don't sound altogether healthy and indeed seemed to be the start of an eating disorder which also included excessive walking all around London's parks and the Embankment.  Sometimes late at night there would be cupboard raids followed by doses of castor oil to flush out her digestive tract.  'Finally, our family doctor discovered what was going on and threatened to put me in hospital and force feed me through the nose, like the Suffragettes.'

Being told by the high Mistress she was not cut out for University, Monica Dickens used the only skill she thought she possessed in her search for employment.  A handful of cooking lessons at the Petit Cordon Bleu school in Sloane Street was the fashionable thing to do at the time and came in rather handy.  Joining a domestic agency with the hilarious name of 'Universal Aunts' in Knightsbridge it was no time at all before she was riding the 52 bus to her first job.  Cooking for a few was no problem but when one of her first duties was to cook for a party of twelve panic began to set in, needless to say when the going got tough Monica would look for something else.  The dwindling number of servants meant that she could leave one post and find another quite easily.  In two years she tried her hand at more than twenty jobs but it doesn't sound as though she ever came close to perfecting her skills.

'A vivid Cavendish memory: I put polish on the hall floor without rubbing it in, carried up the coal bucket, slipped on the polish, put out a hand to save myself, scrubbed at wall to remove hand smudge, found out that wallpaper is not washable, moved grandfather clock two feet to hide disaster, found chair from drawing room to hide different colour wallpaper.  'Why have you moved that chair, Monica?' 'We must have somewhere to lay coats.  The stand is broken.'  Broke two pegs off the coatstand to prove it.'

Her domestic endeavours provided the material for what would become One Pair of Hands published in 1939, a copy of which I bought last year and can't wait to read now!  The next year she would publish Mariana which was republished by Persephone Books in 1999.  Shifting her employment from domestic service to nursing during World War II meant more stories to write about in One Pair of Feet but her plain talk of what went on behind the scenes at the hospital made Monica dangerous to talk to.

'In hospital after hospital, a promising interview would end with a second look at my name on the application form, and a sharp upward glance.
'Aren't you the nurse who...'

With her saved wages and income from writing, Monica was able to purchase a beautiful thatched cottage in Hertfordshire.  At weekends her cosy home was often bustling with family come to stay and she was a favourite with her nieces and nephews.  Any why not with horses, dogs and cats to play with?!

'The windows were low, with small lattice panes and windowsills on which you could put geraniums, like a Beatrix Potter illustration.'

I laughed at the story she wrote about being in Australia for a book signing in 1964.  A woman approached and apparently asked 'how much is it?' in her very strong regional accent.  Monica, thinking the woman had stated her name began to write in a copy...'To Emma Chisit, with best wishes...'  Many times there would be people lined up for ages but rather than wanting to have one of her books signed they simply told Monica how much they enjoyed the works of her great grandfather, Charles Dickens.  I suppose it's to be expected when there is such an iconic figure in your family tree.

The book isn't all warm and fuzzy though as there are some heartbreaking stories from her days of humanitarian service with organizations such as the R.S.P.C.A and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  So far I have only read one of Monica's non-fiction books The Winds of Heaven but it could just be that her autobiographical works are her most riveting.  As soon as I sign off on this post I will be heading out the door to see if a copy of One Pair of Feet is still languishing on the shelf at my local Reuse Centre.  I very much hope so.

The view near Chard, location near Chilworthy, the Elizabethan house owned by Monica Dickens's mother's family.

16 comments:

  1. What a find, Darlene. Monica Dickens was one of the first grown-up writers I ever read as my mum always had them out of the library.

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    1. That's so nice, Mary. Would you root through her bag when she got in or wait until she left her books on a table? It seems like such a little thing but I would have loved it if my mother went to the library.

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    2. Gosh, Darlene, it was so many years ago. I think they were just lying around and I had far more time for reading than she did! And when I was a bit stuck over the transition to adult books - no YA teen books in those days - Mum used to recommend the ones she liked, people like Monica Dickens (who wrote in Woman's Own) and Daphne du Maurier (who I still think is brilliant) and, ahem, Catherine Cookson's Mary Ann stories. And AJ Cronin (Dr Finlay's Casebook was on TV) and Howard Spring, because he was local. All good old-fashioned storytellers.

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  2. I bought this after I absolutely adored the One Pair books - and you've moved it a little further up my tbr pile. If it's anywhere near as good as One Pair of Hands, then I'm in for a treat.

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    1. It's perfectly lovely, Simon, so you won't regret spending your hard-earned cash on it! Her down to earth nature was so appealing and contrary to today's autobiographical works she doesn't share every last gruesome detail. You're in for a treat!

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  3. Some of this was sounding familiar! then I realized that I had read One Pair of Hands yeara ago. And as for Universal Aunts, you don't know how tempted I am to start that business up again! :)

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    1. Oh Audrey, you do make me laugh! In our house we bemoan the fact that the kitchen fairy hasn't come to tidy the kitchen while we've been walking Deacon after dinner. It's an ongoing joke that we never seem to tire of.

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  4. I am not, I have discovered, a great fan of the "One Pair" books, finding Dickens' intensely annoying in them, but I love her fiction. I do have high hopes that I'll enjoy this though; I think part of the problem with the "One Pair" books was that she was so young when she wrote them (at least I hope that was the source of my problem!).

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    1. That's the way it goes but hat's off to you for trying and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Last summer, or the summer before that, I found a first edition of Flowers on the Grass going for a song. It starts off with a cottage door left open all summer....who could resist that, Claire?!

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  5. You and your readers may be interested to know that Universal Aunts still exists!

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    1. Well I am impressed! For a business to still be in trade after so many years speaks volumes. Thanks for the update, I'll have to look them up.

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  6. Monica Dickens is an author I've recently returned too, I used to devour her children's books. I'm reading Mariana at the moment & have the One pair of books on the TBR shelves. I will have to look out for this one

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    1. Then I think you will really enjoy reading about her life in her own words, Karoline! Monica Dickens didn't seem to have any airs about her despite the social circles she was surrounded by and I really admired her willingness to get stuck in. Mariana has been languishing on my shelves for far too long...

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  7. Oh I didn't even know about this one! I've read both One Pair of Hands and One Pair of Feet. I absolutely adored One Pair of Feet--definitely worth tracking down! K x

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    1. And track it down I did! It was right where I left it so thank goodness there hasn't been another fan scouring the shelves at the reuse centre lately. It's a lovely edition and only $3, I was silly not to have picked it up the first chance I had. Glad you enjoyed it, Kristina!

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  8. This is one of my FAVOURITES. I somehow like it even better than herfictionalised autobiographies.

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