Sunday, 6 February 2011

Penguin no. 1535: One Pair of Hands
by Monica Dickens

"It is a curious game that people like to play sometimes, drawing out the maid in order to get amusement out of the screamingly funny idea that she may have some sort of a human life of her own. Nice people like the Vaughans laugh with you, others laugh at you; but it comes to the same thing in the end. Once you get used to the idea of being suddenly hauled out from the oblivion of servitude into the spotlight of attention, and expected to provide entertainment until they just as suddenly tire of you, and intimate that you have said your piece, it's quite an easy game to play."

Penguin published several of Monica Dickens' books. I counted 12 on a quick perusal of the list, but there may well be more. Perhaps it was unfortunate that I read One Pair of Feet first, because I lost all enthusiasm for reading the others. It seemed such a mean-spirited book, and my sympathy was always with the voiceless individuals she mocked and criticised. And so I was interested to see that Simon from Stuck in a book had listed One Pair of Hands in his "50 books you must read but may not have heard about". Had I misjudged her? Well I had written her off on the basis of a single book, and that's probably unwise. I decided  to give Monica Dickens a second chance.

This book is an account of the year and a half Ms Dickens chose to spend working as a servant, specifically as a cook-general, despite the fact that she came from a wealthy family, and was at liberty to choose a more leisured life. She justifies her unusual choice on the grounds that she was bored, and that the alternative life of leisure and parties seemed pointless. And she wanted practical experience cooking, and this wasn't possible in her own wealthy household in which the servants ruled the kitchen. So she became a servant herself, and learnt to cook in other people's kitchens. The Penguin description at the start of the book suggests she was at pains to point out that she didn't undertake the experience to write the book, but I'm not sure this is convincing. She was largely out of her depth, and frequently treated badly, and yet she persevered. It has that Down and Out in Paris and London feel of research undertaken for a higher purpose.

The resulting book is light, easy to read and compelling. Overall, it seems more generous than One Pair of Feet, but it still made me cringe in places. I hope the people she wrote off with epithets such as pig-girl and horse face never read the book. Amongst many others, I felt sorry for the poor married couple who unknowingly employed her as maid, only to have their morning arguments written up for the readers' amusement. And so the irony in the above quote: she recognised the small-mindedness of wealthy people using their servants' lives for their own and their guests' amusement. But she did the same thing herself to people who inadvertently crossed her path, but with a much larger audience.

This book was published in 1939, and it portrays an intriguing world which has now gone. Servants, maids, nannies, cooks seem to be standard and not reserved for the wealthy. It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that they could cook for their own dinner party, get their own breakfast or start their own fire. I kept on wondering what people did with their time, and how this all changed. Did the war convince people that everyone was capable of working? Or did the introduction of the welfare state reduce the supply of servants? Perhaps it was the introduction of technology or the increase in women's wages.

And so in her youth Ms Dickens was able to sample life on both sides of the green baize door. Although the book is predominately an account of her amusing encounters and excruciating failures, she also uses it to highlight the unreasonable demands made of servants, the poor conditions in which they could be required to work, the lack of control they had over their lives. And this drew attention to the fundamental aspect missing from her experience. The servants were dependent on their wages, and it is this which was translated into a lack of choice and power, and resulted in the poor working conditions and overwork which she describes. Whereas she was always free to walk away.


  1. I'm glad that my post helped convince you to give Monica Dickens another try, and sorry that you didn't love it as much as I did, but I'm glad you enjoyed it to an extent! With this one I kind of cast my finer feelings aside, and just enjoyed laughing at it - assuming that Monica Dickens had made up a lot? I don't know.

    But I do find servants and their changing role in the house an incredibly fascinating topic. So many books about, or at least with, servants in the 1920s and '30s, and the war more or less wiped them out. I think it was largely because people who might have been servants got jobs on the land, or in arms factories, and much preferred it.

    I must confess, I did love a line in One Pair of Feet that was mean, but very funny -
    "She looked like one of those potatoes that people photograph and send to the papers because it bears a curious resemblance to a human face."

  2. p.s. I don't know if you'd be interested, but it might fit in with your project - I and another blogger, and anyone else interested, are doing a readalong of William by EH Young from vaguely the middle of February. The more the merrier!

  3. StuckInABook I'm very glad I came across your post as well . I feel much more enthusiastic about tackling her other books. It was definitely the autobiographical aspect that troubled me; I have no trouble with the humour of Evelyn Waugh or Nancy Mitford, which can also be quite cruel.

    And I need to read more of the Penguin first 10, so I have added William to my list of books to be read this month.

  4. I bought this book last week during a scrounge at a second-hand bookshop. Convinced that I was a 'downstairs girl' in a previous life this sort of thing really appeals.

    Glad to hear you'll be joining a few of us in a William read-along!

  5. It is interesting that this book has recently been republished having first been published in 1939, perhaps because of the current popularity of Downtown Abbey and the fascination with Upstairs Downstairs life. Monica Dickens wrote this book aged only 22, already a lively and interesting writer with a subtle sense of humor. For women who now work outside the home as well as cook and do their own housework today the chapters devoted to Monica’s stories of working as a full time cook general in quite small households are amazing, perhaps less so when she mentions the all- prevailing grime and soot of pre war London.

    Kevin Peterson



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