One of my favorite books is “One Pair of Hands” by Monica Dickens. Written in 1937, the book chronicles her adventures as a “cook-general” during the last years before WWII. The inside joke of the book is that Monica (you can’t think of her as anything but “Monica” or “Monty” after reading the book) was the great granddaughter of the great English novelist Charles Dickens. Her own upbringing was that of a
debutante. She felt she was totally unprepared to do anything, but was bored by the tedium of “just going out to parties that one doesn’t enjoy, with people one doesn’t even like. What a pointless existence it is – drifting about in the hope that something may happen to relieve the monotony. Something has got to be done to get me out of this rut.” Her “something” was she decided to be hire herself out as a “cook”. Her family found this hilarious, since she had only taken a few cooking classes as part of her “finishing”. The mishaps and adventures as Monica tries to keep a job, all while waking up in her own upper class home and eating a breakfast prepared by her family’s cook before leaving to cook for others, makes for a wonderful read.
Monica had to keep up a pretense that she was supporting a widowed mother that needed her at night. She didn’t really wish to “live in”, and she said her mother took being told she was a widow “very well”. Young women of her class also did not take menial jobs. She often had to dodge guests at parties that might know her socially. It seems ridiculous now, but it’s all part of the BBC mini series charm of the book. Monica claims in her biography to have sat down and written the book in 2 weeks while resting on the sofa.
My own interest is in skepticism. The book has a small paragraph that demonstrates rather well the folly, and yet the continued belief, of people in even the smallest paranormal activity. Much like reading your daily horoscope, tea leaf reading was at one time very popular. This was before most tea came in bags. It was a fun way to end a nice tea break, and skeptic or not I plan to take it up myself.
“Fortunes now, “ she said, turning both our cups upside down and tapping on their bottoms with a mystic rhythm. “Let’s see what you got. Oh, you lucky girl! Look, dear, you got two spoons near the top. That means flirtations, and this ring by the handle, that’s a wedding. That’s a lovely cup that is. Look at all these dots. They mean money coming to you.”
I was thrilled to the core. “How d’you do it , Maud?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a science, dear, same as astronomy and that. Oh, look!”she said, turning up her cup, “Scissors. That’s quarrels. All the leaves at the bottom, too, that means bad luck. I’m afraid you couldn’t possibly call this a swan here, could you? I sail into more prosperous waters if it is. I never seem to have much luck with the cups. Cards, now that’s another story, but cups! The things I’ve seen! I had a coffin once,. That was a terrible day.”
“Did anyone die?”
“No, dear, but they might have. You’ve got to think of that.”
I’m glad to say that Monica did indeed get married, but not for many years. She continued writing about her work in two other books, “One Pair of Feet” (nursing during WWII) and “My Turn to Make Tea” (journalist). “My Turn to Make Tea” has a very moving account of a young wife dying from a botched abortion, that is one of the most touching, pleas for safe health care for women I’ve ever read.
Over the years Monica wrote many other books, including a popular series for children about horses at “Folly Foot Farm”. She married an American and ended up living on Cape Cod in the USA. Her books about her employment, she joked people thought she only took jobs to write about them, are still popular though can be hard to find. Ebay and Amazon makes it much easier to find her books. Monica may be considered “light reading” but her own reading of the character of those she worked for and with makes these books that stay with you long after you have finished them. Re-reading is almost mandatory, and passing an extra copy along to a friend is always a thrill. You know in a few days you will get an email or phone call “I just finished the book, and I loved it.”
- Doing Dickens – Part 11 (thepenguinblog.typepad.com)
- Enthralling Books: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (boingboing.net)
- Re-reading Dickens: Oliver Twist (gerryco23.wordpress.com)
- Classics Club: Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (fatbooks.org)