Category Archives: Dickens, Monica

Review of 'One Pair of Hands By Monica Dickens

I would love to provide an effective link for this book, but Penguin who published it in paperback originally don’t list it on their website.  However, you can get it from Amazon in electronic or paperbased form.  This was actually the first of a large number of books written by Monica, who is actually the great grand-daughter of Charles Dickens.

‘One Pair of Hands’ is autobiography, recounting the experiences of the author (known to her friends as ‘Monty’) in domestic service, whereas her second book, ‘One Pair of Feet’ (which I haven’t read) is about her nursing career.  Born into a wealthy, middle-class family, Monica had no financial need to work at all.  She hired herself out as what was known in those days as a ‘cook general’ because she was bored by her life in society and wanted to have money of her own.  Her account is therefore that much more valuable because she notices and records things that other servants take for granted.  As I’ve been looking for a primary source on domestic servants in the early twentieth century, this was gold dust.  I learned a lot about what happened behind the green-baize door, even that the green-baize door existed, that cooks were always referred to as ‘Mrs’, how domestic services agencies operated and how important daily calling tradesmen were in a servant’s life.

This book was episodic, detailing, almost in diary form, every post the author held, descriptions of the kitchen and the employers.  She moved between posts very quickly, so was able to describe a range of service set-ups.  She was a plucky young woman.

“You know how to make creme brulee, don’t you. Mrs Dickens?”

“Of course,” said she, reaching for her cookery books and practising three times before she got it on to the table that evening.

As a cook, she worked extremely fast, arriving to do everything from scratch for an evening dinner party, only at four-thirty in the afternoon, putting most of us ‘working’ hostesses to shame.

Monica was totally deprecating, detailing every mistake in hilarious detail and attributing her successes to ‘luck’.  Indeed, I was put in mind of old fashioned British values at their best, that general getting on with it, ‘quietly and without fuss’.  (I think that last bit is a quote from ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.  How random is that?  It’s late.)

Do I recommend it?  As a source book on domestic service, yes.  Did it keep me amused?  It was a bit samey.  Was it a work of literature?  No, definitely not.  The written style was very much ‘plonk, plonk, plonk’ with more or less every sentence containing an ‘and’ in the middle.   Will I read anything more of Monica Dickens?   Yes, I want to read ‘One Pair of Feet’ about nursing.  Books like this are gems for writers because they give detailed insights into different situations and different eras which the history books, academic articles and papers – let alone Wikipedia – can never do.