Friday, April 12, 2013

A career in the kitchen

One Pair of Hands, Monica Dickens

I've seen references to Monica Dickens on blogs from time to time but never felt any great curiosity about her books.  That changed abruptly somewhere around the second paragraph of Barb's review of One Pair of Feet over on Leaves & Pages.  Realizing that it is an account of nurse's training in World War II sent me off in search of a copy.  As I've mentioned before, I have a weakness for nursing school stories dating back many years, and I'm always interested in accounts of war-time nursing and the home front in World War II.  Then from the comments, I learned about One Pair of Hands, an account of an earlier career, and because I need to read stories in order, I started with this one.

The book opens with a bald declaration: "I was fed up."
     "I had just returned from New York, where the crazy cyclone of gaiety in which people seem to survive over there had caught me up, whirled me blissfully round, and dropped me into a London which seemed flat and dull.  I felt restless, dissatisfied, and abominably bad-tempered.
     "'Surely,' I thought, 'there's something more to live than just going out to parties that one doesn't enjoy, with people one doesn't even like? What a pointless existence it is - drifting about in the hope that something may happen to relieve the monotony. Something has got to be done to get me out of this rut.'
     "In a flash it came to me:
     "'I'll have a job!'"
But what sort of job?  A year at a London drama school had made it clear that she had no talent for the stage; she lacked both talent and interest in dress-making.  What did interest her was cooking, and she had taken lessons in Paris and London.

When she told her family her plans, "the roars of laughter were rather discouraging. No one believed that I could cook at all, as I had never had a chance to practise at home," where the family's long-time cook reigned in the kitchen.  She decided to find a job on her own and surprise them with her success.  She started with an agency, where I'm guessing her youth and her upper middle-class origins were just as much a problem as her lack of experience and references.
"[The woman at the desk] hinted in a delicate way that she wondered why I was looking for this sort of job, so I felt impelled to give her a glimpse of a widowed mother and a desperate struggle against poverty. I almost made myself believe in the pathos of it, and we had to cough and change the subject. I felt even more pathetic when she told me that it would be difficult to get a job without experience or references.  She rustled about among her papers for a a bit and I wondered whether I ought to leave . . ."
Instead, the woman offered her a position, starting the next day, with a dinner for ten people.  The dinner skirted the edges of disaster, and her new job ended that night, but the agency found her another, and she was launched on a career as a cook-general (combining cooking and housework).  The book is an account of her adventures in different households, as she learned on the job, by trial and error (with lots and lots of errors, and a quick end to several jobs, at least in the beginning).  I was reminded of Margaret Powell's book Below Stairs, another account of life as a cook in much the same time period. The two books are an interesting contrast.  Monica Dickens and Margaret Powell came of course from very different worlds.  Margaret Powell had to work her way up from kitchen maid to cook, but along the way she learned the fundamentals of cooking and then the elegancies.  Though Monica Dickens started out as a cook, she lacked basic skills, and she had to put a lot of energy into compensating for that, as well as keeping up her fictional persona.  But both women worked very hard.  Margaret Powell was part of a large staff and usually had help in the kitchen.  Monica Dickens was usually on her own, though she had a genius for recruiting help from the tradesmen who called, as well as friends who pitched in on a lark. 

Both women were acute observers of the families they served, as well as their fellow servants, exposing their foibles and follies in sharp, sometimes acerbic accounts.  Monica Dickens' tone is lighter and funnier, which points up the greatest difference between the two.  Margaret Powell worked from necessity, and she was a live-in servant, with little time or space for herself.  Monica Dickens was a daily, who went home each night to be tucked up by her mother in a comfortable bed, with a hot cup of milk from the cook.  Between jobs at one point, she joined her family on a trip to Alsace-Lorraine, where she studied the region's cooking.  She could pick and choose between jobs, and perhaps more importantly, leave a job when she felt like it, when she had finally had enough.  But though she might have been a dilettante, she did work hard, and I sympathized with her need to do something meaningful, something real.  I did wonder if any of her employers, reading this, recognized themselves.  Did they resent her deception, as well as her sometimes unsparing portrayals of them?   I on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed her book.  I'm looking forward more than ever now to her account of life as a nurse, and also to exploring her many novels.


  1. I love this trilogy, and this one the most of all. She has such a good eye - I was going to pick out in particular that terrible mother-in-law dinner party where everything goes wrong, but it is merely one among so many gloriously described disasters. (I shall go and find Margaret Powell now too, as I agree that MD, for all she works her butt off, definitely has the luxury of the family safety-net.)

  2. Oh yes, the MIL who kept popping in to tell her how to do her job! I also really enjoyed the Gosford Park-esque stint as cook at the country estate. I broke down & ordered a copy of the third book this morning, as well as her autobiography.

  3. I thought her writing in Mariana was wonderful, so I'm interested in reading this too. Much to my surprise, my library even has a copy! (My library is wonderful, but not always so great when it comes to older, less well-known books.)

  4. I liked Below Stairs a lot, so this one looks like a good candidate for interlibrary loan. The Alsace-Lorraine bit intrigues me too, after reading Waverly Root's culinary travelog of France.

  5. Oh, I really have to find this book and One Pair of Feet. I love work experience stories, and these seem delightful.

  6. I just got a copy of Mariana in the mail and am looking forward to it very much. I had no idea she wrote books about her own experiences - they sound fascinating!

  7. Teresa, your review made me want to read Mariana too, and I now have a copy on the TBR shelves. Our city library has large numbers of older books in special storage - not on the stacks, but at least still accessible, and a better selection than the county library system (we're blessed to have both though).

    Fay, I remember reading your posts about that book. But there isn't much detail about Alsace-Lorraine in this one.

    elizabeth, there's also a third book, about working for a newspaper after the war - that one is also on my list.

    Anbolyn, my copy of Mariana arrived last week - the lovely Persephone edition!

  8. I enjoyed Mariana very much and was wondering where to turn next... my decision is made!

  9. And I know I'll be reading Mariana in the very near future, JoAnn!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!