Thursday, June 08, 2017

Monica Dickens

I've been on a Monica Dickens kick lately and I'm going to explain why you should be too. Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens. Born in 1915, she was raised in an upper-middle class family in London. She wrote thirty books for adults, published between 1939 and 1993 and thirteen children's books. She died in 1992.

Monica Dickens

You may recall that I wrote recently about Dear Dr. Lily, (post here) which I mostly enjoyed, but had some reservations about. Despite my mixed feelings about this particular novel, I liked Dickens' style and wanted to read more of her.

Next, I read The Landlord's Daughter (1968), choosing it because it's the only Monica Dickens novel at my library. I liked this novel better than Dear Dr. Lily, although both books venture into dark and creepy territory. It's about a young woman named Charlotte, aka "Charlie" a rather large, earnest, bumbling girl who is awkward in the upper middle class society she's been raised in. Charlie works as the gym mistress at a girls' school and one evening experiences a mishap - one of the crazy freak accidents that could happen to anyone. It's both horrifying and ridiculous and I read the scene with my fist crammed into my mouth because it was so suspenseful. This accident leads to her encounter with a stranger that will change the course of her entire life in a not altogether positive way. And that's really all I can say because there's a bit of a mystery that I don't want to spoil. The whole story is told in flashbacks, after Charlie's death.

The third Monica Dickens book I read was Mariana (1940) one of her earliest novels. This is a lighter story than the other two: a semi-autobiographical account of a young girl growing up in London in the 1920s and '30s. It reminded me somewhat of the Cazelet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard. There's a family estate in the country, a handsome cousin she loves and numerous annoying girl cousins. It turns out, Monica Dickens is very funny. She's brilliant at depicting those times when you're utterly failing at something that seems to come quite easily to everyone else. I can really relate to that and I snort-laughed out loud during one scene. Highly recommended.

Finally, I read One Pair of Hands, Dickens' first book. (1939) This is a memoir of the time she spent, as a young woman, working as a servant, a "cook general" which seems to be someone who's in charge of cooking and most of the housework. Dickens was from a privileged background, so this career decision must have been viewed as eccentric in the extreme, but she doesn't dwell much on her family's reaction. Over the course of a year and a half or two years, she worked in several households. She was treated well in some places and badly in others. Dickens did take a cooking course before embarking on this career, but she really didn't know what she was doing, so much of the book describes domestic disasters that she strives to hide from her employers. After all, how is anyone to know that you dropped their nicely roasted chicken on the floor, or used their expensive port in a stew because you drank all the cooking sherry? There's also a colorful cast of characters in the tradesmen she deals with and fellow servants. And this is what I love the most about Monica Dickens - she is not a snob. She pitches right in with the other servants, never holds herself above. She really must have been a fun person to have as a friend.

Now I'm eager to read more of her, particularly One Pair of Feet, her memoir about her time working as a nurse. Have any of you read Monica Dickens?


  1. I had not heard of Monica Dickens until reading your post; Mariana sounds to my taste and also her memoir.

    1. It's really good. And I forgot to mention before I published that the servant job wasn't a stunt for the sake of writing an amusing book about it. It's really what she wanted to do and succeed at. She was bored with upper class life.

  2. I had not heard of her until you, but now I want to check her out.

  3. Just checked the city library in Stockholm and they have quite a few of her books, both in English and Swedish translation! Will put on my summer reading list, thank you!