An Open Book, Monica Dickens
Audrey asked the other day, "Are you interested in the biographies of the authors you read? Does reading a biography enrich your reading of the novels or the poems, or does the work stand on its own?" It was an opportune question, since I was already reading this autobiography. I'm very much interested in reading about the authors I enjoy. Usually, though, I turn to books about an author after I've read much if not all of her or his own work. With Monica Dickens, I started reading not fiction but memoir, with One Pair of Hands, her account of working as a cook-general. When I saw that she had written an autobiography in addtition to her memoirs and novels, it seemed like a good idea to read that before going on to her other work.
The first lines of this book are a clear statement of what it will be: "This is not the whole story of a life. It is an attempt to capture some of those elements of it which are the origins of the books that I have written." Her family is perhaps the most important of those elements. She belonged to two eccentric extended families that mixed English, French and Germans. Her father, half-French through his mother, was a grandson of Charles Dickens, though as a child Monica did not understand or appreciate her literary heritage. Her mother Fanny's parents, originally from Germany, settled into English country life (by way of Cuba) on an estate in Somerset, where Monica and her sister spent summers and holidays with a host of cousins (her only brother, the oldest child, was away at school and then naval college).
Monica called her parents by their first names from a young age. "It is only now that I am surprised at how progressive they were about it." She writes movingly about their close relationship, which lasted throughout their lives. It was rooted in the love and security they gave her in childhood:
Apart from the bourgeois entrenchment of the large Runge and Dickens families, there was the strengthening reassurance of parents who thought you were all right, and frequently told you so. Fanny was too small and bony for bosomy cuddling and knee-sitting, but if you hurled yourself into her arms, she would pat you on the back, after she recovered her balance, and hum at you. She never sat still for very long, but Henry was in one place for hours, reading or making lists or cutting out jigsaws from posters pasted onto plywood, his lap always available as an extra piece of warm furniture . . . I did not really want them to change, and they did not even try to change me. If I was scowling and sullen, it was not, 'Don't behave like that.' It was, 'She's scowling and sullen.'
She had another source of that love and reassurance in the well-named Nanny Gathergood, who "did gather good out of her warm, unselfish heart and heap it on our family" in the 30 years that she spent with them.
In contrast to her parents, the extended family was less supportive when Monica's life did not follow the usual pattern of début, marriage, and children. Feeling lost and drifting, she discovered a vocation in work, first in cooking and then in nursing, as well as friendships she had not expected. It was finally in writing that she found her real work. In this book she talks about how she came to write One Pair of Hands, her first book, published when she was just 24. Its immediate success brought her magazine and newspaper work, including a column in Woman's Own for 20 years. But not all the family approved: "Some of the Dickens aunts were outraged that I had played fast and loose with the name . . . Charles Dickens was expected to be the last family member to appear in print."
Her writing then becomes another major element of the story that Monica is telling here. She discusses the inspiration for books, her first ideas or the suggestions from others. She talks about research, including a very unsettling section about shadowing case workers from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on home visits and in court. She writes about reactions to her books, especially to her memoir of nursing in World War II, One Pair of Feet, which got her banned from work as a nurse for some time. After this autobiography was published in 1978, she wrote another seven books, the last published after her death in 1992.
Despite the extensive discussion of her writing, there is almost nothing about her own reading, though her father loved to read aloud, and she herself learned to read before she was four. I am always curious about what other people read, and I missed that - particularly in a book that is so much about books. There were other gaps, things I wanted to know more about. Her family was Roman Catholic, and there are references to attending Sunday Mass, regular confession and so on, the practice of religion, but there is nothing of faith, belief. Perhaps that was too personal a topic. I felt that she also glosses over her marriage to Roy Stratton, an American naval officer whom she met on a plane from Glasgow. Three pages later, she arrives in America and they are married (in the Roman Catholic Church). "An ageing G.I. bride [at 36], I may have been the most insular Englishwoman who ever ventured, for love, into the New World." I was surprised at a later reference to Roy's son, who married soon after they did and made them grandparents around the time they were adopting two daughters from England. That is the first indication that Roy was previously married, but no further information is given, perhaps to protect his and his family's privacy (an unfamiliar concept in many autobiographies today).
Quibbles aside, I very much enjoyed this book. It is more serious in tone than One Pair of Hands, but always entertaining and frequently very funny (which is why the section on child abuse is so jolting). I agree with the cover blurb from the Daily Express, "A rare slice of social history and a warm self-portrait." I realized about half-way through the danger of reading a book about an author's books: I wanted to read all the books she was writing (about). I couldn't resist Flowers on the Grass, because her description reminded me instantly of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life:
Ever since I started to write, perhaps before that, I have been intrigued by the idea of alternative lives. At any moment of any of our days, there are choices . . . What about the choices we don't make? What happens to those alternative selves? Is it possible they have some sort of shadow existence alongside the one we know, and are in some way realized? . . . That would make it easier to understand why certain people and places, glimpsed at the periphery of your own life, are recognizable.
I am also particularly intrigued by The Listeners, written from her experience with The Samaritans, a suicide-prevention group, which she discusses in some detail. In working with this group, she seemed to have again found a sense of vocation, of calling.
Between the books I already have on the TBR stacks, and the ones that I couldn't resist adding, I think this will be a Dickens year.