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.

Second-hand book: The children who lived in a barn

You may remember I picked up a few second-hand books at our village’s May Fair:

secondhand books

One of these was a children’s book written by Eleanor Graham and originally published in 1938.  ‘The Children who lived in a Barn’ had been on my wishlist for a while as it was republished by Persephone Books, a publishing house I really love. (I have blogged about them here)

Persephone Books re-printed ‘The Children who lived in a Barn’ in 2001, with a preface by renowned children’s author, Jacqueline Wilson. It tells the story of the five Dunnet children whose parents disappear on a plane trip and who are left to fend for themselves on the outskirts of a rural village.

The children who lived in a barn

The children move out of their rented house and into a deserted barn, loaned to them by a kindly farmer. The children range in age from 13 to seven and, while dodging the interfering ‘District Visitor’ (DV) and trying to make do on very little money, still manage to be fed, watered and attend school.

In her preface to the Persephone edition, Jacqueline Wilson writes:

‘Back in the fifties the book seemed entirely convincing. Reading it now I’m in my fifties it seems extraordinary.”

And it certainly does! The edition I picked up for 50p dates from 1965 and I’m not sure it would have seemed feasible even then for five children to be left to fend for themselves for months on end. Certainly, reading it as a parent in 2016 (and speaking as one who really does enjoy children’s literature) I find it astonishing.

The children who lived in a barn

The burden of running the new household falls on the shoulders of the eldest child, Sue, who is ‘thirteen and a bit’.   She is the first one to rise in the morning, light the fire, make breakfast (and then wash up),and get the younger children ready for school. One morning a week she even gets up at five to wash all of their clothes – before going onto school herself. She also helps local shopkeepers with their bookkeeping, and the ‘District Visitor’ has plans for her to go into service. Her younger brother, Bob, takes on the role of ‘father’ and they become surrogate parents to the younger siblings.

The irony is that these are fairly well-off middle class children whose parents wouldn’t have dreamed of sending them to the local village school. However when they abruptly leave them all to visit a sick relative in France, the young Dunnets really are left alone.

Some could argue they experience a free-range childhood, without the constraints of parents (don’t all the best children’s books feature absent parents?). However there doesn’t seem to be much playing for the eldest child. As a parent of a 14 year old girl I can’t imagine her possessing half the skills that Sue has. But, in terms of modern day life, she can do the washing and cook tea using all the appliances that now save us time and remove us from the drudgery and sheer hard work of housework. However, if I had sons, I would expect the same of them.

The children’s adventures in the barn come to an end – and just in time before winter sets in and the ‘DV’s plans to separate the children.

I’m not sure I could say that I enjoyed reading this book, and am relieved I only spent 50p rather than £12 on it. However as an insight into pre-war childhood, and the roles and responsibilities of teenage girls, it is quite an eye-opener.



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second-hand books: January roundup.

I am still trying to be more thoughtful when I buy books, even when they are second-hand. We now have ten bookshelves in the lounge (upcycled from old floorboards) but the rule is that all our books must fit on them. So, apart from a few scattered in bedrooms, there are no other bookshelves in the house. And if a book doesn’t fit on the shelf then it has to go…

bookshelves, with our cosy reading corner

bookshelves, with our cosy reading corner on the left

I wrote in this post of my love for everything ever published by Persephone Books. These books do come with a hefty price tag (£12) but they are worth every penny. Imagine my delight, then, at coming across one in mint condition at the Oxfam Book Shop in Bath for £3.49

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance

Someone at a Distance was originally published in 1953, and was the last novel written by Dorothy Whipple I love reading books set in the 1930s-1950s, an era which Persephone Books covers very well. While I haven’t finished this novel I am hooked on this tale of a well to do English family whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a French ‘femme fatale’. It’s such a pleasure to become immersed in a book!


This week I also picked up a second-hand copy of a David Walliams novel as my middle daughter has been enjoying his writing. Having scoured half a dozen charity shops this was the only David Walliams book I could find. She was delighted.

David Walliams: gangsta granny

As for the ‘one in one out’ rule on books we have a school jumble sale in a few weeks’s time and we shall set to work this weekend stripping down the shelves to make room for our new (to us) purchases.

Persephone books

Persephone Books

My love for Persephone Press began when I came across one of their books in a charity shop in Swanage. ‘Miss Pettigrew lives for a day’ by Winifred Watson  is a funny, life affirming tale of a ‘middle aged’ governess who becomes swept up in the hedonistic – and dramatic – lifestyle of a nightclub singer in 1930s London. It is certainly of its time  (with casual references to cocaine) but it is also an enjoyable read.

Originally written and published in 1938, Persephone Books reprinted the novel in 2001. The aim of the publishing house is to reprint novels from the mid 20th Century that have been largely forgotten, or out of print. Although they focus on female writers they also feature male authors, such as Leonard Woolf. They include some authors who may be better known for their children’s books, such as Richmal Crompton (creator of the ‘Just William’ series), Barbra Euphan Todd (Worzel Gummidge) and – my favourite – Noel Streatfeild.

When I was a child I loved Streatfeild’s series of ‘Ballet Shoes’ and I have to say that Persephone Books’ reprint of her grown up novel, ‘Saplings’ is one of the best books I have read for ages. Originally published in 1945 it is a heart-breaking story of how war affects the lives of four siblings. The Guardian said of it: “…A book that belongs in the archives of the Imperial War Museum..” and I agree.

Many of the Persephone Press novels that I have read focus on the Second World War and, in particular, women’s experience. I would recommend ‘Marianna’ by Monica Dickens (the novel begins at the start of WW2 then returns to the tale of the protagonist’s childhood); ‘Good Evening, Mrs Craven’, a collection of tales from the homefront. For the period just after the war, when the pre-war social order was trying to re-establish itself and the continent of Europe was still in upheaval I would recommend Marghanita Laski’s novels: ‘Little Boy Lost’ and ‘The Village’.

I rarely buy books, in an attempt to keep control of our bookshelves. I have written before about only keeping those books which I truly love and know I will read again. The books of Persephone Press are my one bibliophilic treat. While they are a hefty price (£9-£14) I have never been disappointed by any that I have read. They also have the most beautiful design and can truly be judged by their covers.

Persephone Books