Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Factory work in wartime

The Fancy, Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens wrote a book, One Pair of Feet, about working as a nurse in the Second World War.  In her autobiography, published many years later, she says that she had to quit nursing to find the time to write about it.  "The Ministry of Labour still allowed you to move from job to job, as long as it was war work."  She decided on factory work and trained to be a fitter. 
Through a Kensington friend, I got myself a job in the inspection department at Sunbeam Talbot, up near Little Wormwood Scrubs and the railway sheds.  They were repairing Rolls-Royce Spitfire engines for fighter planes, which had failed on test, or been damaged in a crash.
A year later, she was back working as a nurse.  In her spare time,
I used to lug my typewriter back to the hospital after supper and put it on the emergency operating table in the basement and sit on the anaesthetist's stool and try to write bits of a novel about a foreman in an aircraft factory before I was disturbed.

Though she didn't mention it by name, The Fancy is that book.  Her foreman's name is Edward Ledward.  The cover of my Penguin paperback shows him cradling a rabbit, one of the Flemish Giant breed that he raises in his back garden.  I don't know if I've been reading too many mysteries lately, or if it was the effect of the Super Moon, but I was convinced that something bad was going to happen to those bunnies.  Not just rabbit meat for dinner - something worse.  Maybe a direct hit on the hutches from a stray bomb in the Blitz, or even a preview of Fatal Attraction.  I spent half the book anticipating the worst - about rabbits, for pete's sake, never mind the human characters. There is some unkindness in this book, even cruelty and a couple of deaths off-stage.  But (spoiler alert) the bunnies live happily ever after.

As the story opens, Edward has just been promoted to a charge hand in the Inspection Shop at Canning Kyles, "which serviced aero engines."  He will supervise ten women on his bench, each of whom is responsible for checking a particular piece of the engines.  We get to know his crew as he does, following first one and then another in their work and in their personal life outside the factory.  I found them a bit confusing at first - Edward does too - so I made a list.  There's Dinah, "wildly, ecstatically happy" with her husband Bill; Kitty, smothered by her mother's loving care; Sheila, losing herself in love for the first time; and Wendy, whom Edward can't help comparing to a rabbit, quietly hiding a difficult home situation.  Edward has his own problems at home.  His wife Connie is often impatient and abrupt with him, uninterested in his work or the rabbits that he is successfully breeding.  Her mother and sister, who spend a lot of time with Connie, take an equally dim view of him.

The factory work itself is pretty dull, as Monica Dickens found out.  "In the relentless monotony of the work, any sense of purpose gradually dwindled in focus down to the weekly pay packet."  This isn't a grandly patriotic story of the war, despite the management's efforts to stress the importance of the factory work.  Though the war is always there, in the rations and the clothing coupons and the blackout, it is in the background for much of the story.  It's just the way things are to some of the characters, who hardly seem to notice it, while to others it brings tragedy and grief.

Once I got over my paranoia about the rabbits, I enjoyed this book very much.  It is of its time in casually racist references, but on the other hand Edward is quite at home in the "the Jewish colony" near where he lives, its residents kind and sympathetic.  I liked following the different characters, seeing how their lives intersect.  I had a pretty good idea where Edward's story was going to end up, though I had no idea how it was going to get there.  I thought the ending of two of the stories in particular were very cleverly and neatly done.  As with Monica Dickens' other books, I also enjoyed seeing how she used the events of her own life in her stories.  She is a good example of that adage, "Write what you know."  Now I'm wondering what to read next.

N.B. This book, published in 1943, completes the first quarter of my Mid-Century of Books reading project.  Honestly, I thought I'd be a lot further along by this point, and I expected to have more of the Victorian years accounted for.  I should have 1897 covered in a couple of days, thanks to Rudolf Rassendyll.


  1. You're not alone in your animal paranoia - the moment you mentioned rabbits, I thought, Uh-oh... Keen to read this now I know it is safe! I do like her autobio trio, so suspect this would be a good match.

  2. vicki, I felt like the world's biggest weenie, so I'm glad to know I'm not alone :) This one is fun, despite the rather dark setting.

  3. Hahahaha, I often go into books imagining the worst for all the characters. When a book surprises me with its mercy for the characters (and animals), it is always a nice treat. I was reading Nathan Filer's book The Shock of the Fall recently, and just bracing for the worst at every moment. A lot of bad things happened, but still it was a more merciful book than I was expecting. I'm glad your bunnies survived!

    (I'd have read the end at once to check that they made it.)

  4. I've had this sitting on my Kobo for almost a year now, after Barb from Leaves & Pages recommended it to me as one of favourite Monica Dickens novels. Your review has reminded me how much I want to read it!

  5. Jenny, that's how I felt - braced for the worst! I did think about reading the end (and thought of you), but I realized that wouldn't help, given the number of rabbits being raised :)

    Claire, I've been trying to remember where I read about this book - it was probably on Leaves & Pages. It was Barb who introduced me to Monica Dickens, via the One Pair books.

  6. So glad you've read it and enjoyed it. It is a lot of fun, isn't it? Love the parallel lives of Edward and his crew; love all the wartime, factory and personal details; love MD's snarky humour.

    Another one of Monica Dickens' novels of this time period you might like (I've probably already recommended it :-) ) is "The Happy Prisoner" - takes place after the war and is a similar (though completely different) type of thing.

  7. Barb, I think it's now one of my favorite WWII stories, though less directly about the war. I already have The Happy Prisoner on the TBR stacks! and thank you again for introducing me to MD.


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!