One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

Published 1939   chapter 4   set in the 1930s

[The narrator is working for a dress designer]

When I took in the tea the drawing-room was draped in lengths of material of all colours, and the three of them were flinging themselves among it, holding up a piece here and there and exclaiming ecstatically. I put the tea-tray down on a vacant stool and was just going out when Martin Parrish rushed at me with a bit of gold lamé, and, commanding me to stand still, draped it swiftly and skilfully round my form. He stepped back with clasped hands, surveying with his head on one side, and I stood there feeling like one of those improbable-looking effigies in shop windows. ‘Look!’ he cried, calling upon the other two to admire. ‘Quite perfect for that blonde type – the whole effect in gold could be too marvellous. Take a note, Kenneth; what’s the number of the stuff? Oh, yes. Here – avoid any contrasts with BX 17 – accessories, etc., unbroken line important to carry on colour effect…’

‘No, don’t go away, I haven’t finished,’ said my employer irritably as he advanced on me with a length of black taffeta which he bunched round me…

observations: In the days before Young Adult books were invented, there was a kind of grown-up book felt to be suitable and appropriate for the libraries of girls’ schools: light but edifying reading. Books like this one – a jolly, supposedly true account of someone’s life as they tried out a career, full of anecdotes but also giving you a clue as to what life was like. Nursing featured a lot: this one is about being a cook.

Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, and so rather posh: her selling point is the hilarity of a young woman of her background going into something so menial as cooking. (She also wrote more of her true-life adventures – nursing again - various novels, and the Follyfoot children’s books.)

Online friend Lucy Fisher (guested on Lark on the Wing, see also  her blog) pointed out this scene to me, and while I loved this bit, when I reread the book I was disappointed – I had remembered it from my own girls’ school years as being quite good. Now, I find it snobbish, mean-minded and tiresome: Dickens is plainly dreadful at the job most of the time, but is very put out if the people paying her get cross about her bad food, clumsiness and carelessness. It’s not clear if she’s being ironic here -

I must have struck it unlucky - most of the people I went to never wanted to see me again…
- but it’s very believable.

The top photo - from the Library of Congress - is of actress Winifred Bryson. The other woman in a gold dress was used on the blog to illustrate Jane Gardam’s Long Way From Verona, a YA book that would make for much better reading for a modern teenager.


  1. It's her first book - she improved! I like the bits about sitting in the kitchen drinking Indian tea and discussing the family's ailments.

  2. Moira - Oh, very interesting. I didn't know writing was in that family that way. And I think it's really interesting how views about books change as we get older and mature.

  3. I used to read Monica Dickens when I was a teenager. My local library had a good selection of her books. I can barely remember any of them now though.

  4. Margot - I think it's because you are American! I think this proves my point - Lucy, Sarah and I have a shared culture growing up reading these books. I'm sure there was an American equivalent: you'll have to think and tell us what it was. Maybe Betty MacDonald and the Egg and I?

  5. Currently reading One Pair of Feet! The anecdotes and snippets are fascinating - it's one of those nursing books where she decides to go be a nurse - and I think you'll enjoy her suffering and torture (mainly via sleep deprivation) throughout the book. Some really striking bits of observation although I do see your criticism's point - and the casual scattering of racist terms is a bit of a shocker (I would have HATED to have had thick curly hair and been around in the Second World War...) but at the same time surprisingly credible, these do feel like real people of the time, period attitudes and all.

    1. Yes I should get on to it - I read quite a few of hers around the time I read this one, and then she slipped away, but there's plenty left. BTW, I have just finally got round to a book you told me to get ages ago, look out for post soon!

    2. Ooh, I was just wondering about that one and whether you'd gotten to it yet and what you thought.... if it's Up The Attic Stairs!

    3. Yes it is - what an extraordinary book, I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that, but it's wonderful. What a pity it isn't better known... I wish I'd had it to give to my daughter when she was a teenager.

    4. I can't wait to see which section you picked out - because I honestly have no idea how you could have decided on one, let alone two or even three....!

    5. Totally - there's going to be at least two posts, I'm sure I could do a week's worth.


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