One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

Published 1939     chapter 1  set in the 1930s

Then I washed the vegetables sketchily, and put them on to cook. Feverishly I opened the tins of lobster. When I came to from the agonized delirium of a torn thumb, I was confronted by the problem of how on earth one made a lobster cocktail. I started to make them into a sticky mess with some tomato, thinned down with a little of my life-blood. At this critical point the mistress of the house careered into the kitchen in full feather.

The first impression one got of Miss Cattermole was like looking into one of those kaleidoscopes, in which coloured beads whirl about in a dazzle of changing patterns. When your eyes got used to her, she resolved into a mass of multi-coloured scarves, sewn haphazardly together, so that loose ends waved gaily from unlikely places to the answering flutter of straggling orange-wool hair. Out of this profusion, a pair of beady eyes darted a piercing glance of horror at my poor lobster. ‘Oh, dear!’ she shrilled. ‘Is that the way you make lobster cocktails? It looks funny to me; oh, dear, I do hope everything’s going to be all right. 
Are you sure –’

observations: I was quite rude about this book in a previous entry, but am still strangely fascinated by it. Adding her blood to the dish? – well, one can only hope she is making it up. But then that’s my complaint: it’s pretty clear that this is not a plain memoir, relating exactly what happens – she has tidied it up, and exaggerated, and given it a structure. So why in the name of her great-grandfather Charles did she not make it funny, witty and clever? Why didn’t she give some of the anecdotes more of a shape or a punchline? They tend to peter out into nothing. (The lightweight but highly entertaining Doctor in the House books by Richard Gordon show how it should be done.)

There are odd moments where something better seems to be trying to get through – she is splendidly honest about eavesdropping (she hears herself described as ‘quite pretty in a common way’) and prying into her employers’ affairs, and funny about the lower classes trying it on with her. She is like a friend telling you boring stories about her life and the people she works with (whom you don’t know), one who sees herself as the entertaining heroine of her own saga.

And in the end she is just a posh girl playing at it. Tucked away in the book is the fact that a servant brings her coffee before she goes off to work doing other people’s breakfasts…

Links on the blog: One option for girls of Monica Dickens type, she says, was to work in a dress shop ‘in the hope that they will introduce their rich friends.’ This is one of the themes of the 1930s play, 9 till 6, on the blog recently.

The sketch is a design for a ballet costume, by L. Bakst – obviously Miss Cattermole isn’t supposed to look nearly as nice as this, but this is payback for Dickens’ unforgiveable description ‘that gaudy exterior cloaked a drab little snobbish soul.’


  1. Moira - I like your description of Dickens seeing herself as the entertaining heroine of her own saga. I've met people like that and I know just exactly what you mean. Interesting isn't it how a book can draw you to it even as you know it's not good...


Post a Comment