Dickens and Domestic Drudgery between the wars: review of ‘One Pair of Hands’

Monica Dickens: One Pair of Hands

Despite our short stay in Swanage we did manage a trip to the secondhand bookshop where I picked up this Penguin edition for £2.

As I have mentioned many times I am a great fan of Persephone Books. One of their re-printed authors is Monica Dickens and I really enjoyed her wartime novel, ‘Mariana’. So I was very excited to come across this edition of her debut autobiographical book, ‘One Pair of Hands’, originally published in 1939.

Monica Dickens, a great grandaughter of Charles Dickens,  grows bored of her debutante life of parties and trips to New York. So, in the mid 1930s she enrolls in cookery classes and starts to work as a cook to a selection of upper and middle class families in London.

Her self deprecating style (she believes she is a bad, clumsy and disorganised cook) and hilarious observations of both below and above stairs life is a far cry from Downton Abbey. While she adopts the persona of an ordinary cook, and never gives away her privileged background, she does hold an irreverent attitude towards her employers, which comes with being upper class herself.

Monica listens at closed doors and pretends she doesn’t understand the French that is spoken by her employers when she is in the room (apparently the language used by the upper classes to talk about private affairs and servants when they are present). Her housework is haphazard, and she often lies about- or exaggerates – her culinary skills.

Yet, despite this, she seems to make a successful, if short-lived, career as a cook-general. Apparently, a cook-general, was a term used in the 1920s and 1930s to describe a domestic servant who undertook both cooking and housekeeping.

Out of the many positions that Monica undertakes, only two are live-in. Most of the time she is employed as a daily cook. She occasionally has the help of a  ‘char woman’ who comes in to clean. Apart from this her only regular company is the daily call of grocers, bakers, milkmen and greengrocers who come to the back door to deliver, and take orders for, provisions.

Reading the book you get the impression that servants were hard to come by in the mid thirties.  By this period, there were more job opportunities for working class women (secretarial, department store sales). By the time the book was published the world was about to change in unimaginable ways which would further break down master and servant boundaries.

With the arrival of technology such as gas powered ranges, frigidairs (or ‘frig’) and even vacuum cleaners, domestic work was supposed to be easier. However the author still seems to struggle with these appliances (don’t we all?).There is an underlying theme throughout the book that employers really have no idea of how hard or time consuming the work is. Having recently re-read Sarah Waters’ ‘The Paying Guests‘ (set in 1922) it is evident how much of a drudge daily life was for any domestic servant, or for those genteel women who could no longer afford them.

It is this daily drudgery and perpetual exhaustion that eventually forces Monica Dickens to give it all up. However, for an upper class deb , this is easily done. My nan (born ten years before Ms Dickens) was employed in domestic work for most of her life because she had few opportunities.

While there are many outdated themes in the book, the one I struggle with most is the idea that people don’t know how to cook. Even the more modest couples who live in London flats seem incapable of boiling an egg. How these people would have survived  without paying other people to cook, clean and wash for them, completely baffles me. Surely one of the most fundamental needs of any human being is to feed themselves, and not one that should be left to rely solely on a particular class or gender?

While the book is perceptive and funny, I can’t quite understand the author’s motive for undertaking this work in the first place. Is it to genuinely find an occupation or is it a source of entertainment? If, however, the experience below stairs was to chronicle a form of domestic servitude, and accompanying class attitudes, that has since  disappeared, then Monica Dickens’ book is an amusing insight.

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