One Pair of Hands – Monica Dickens

Monica thinks those downstairs have more fun than she does in her life upstairs so she wants to find out if this is true. In some ways she is conducting an experiment as she embarks on a life as a cook-general. Her decision is simply laughed at by her family and they seem to tolerate her rather mad scheme of going out to work.

And Monica does go out to work as a cook-general, she does the cooking rather by luck than by skill.

The cleaning by only moving the dust around from one place to the other and around the static items.

Taking dogs out simply involves letting them out of the door in the vain hope that they come back.

Serving at dinner to listen in on the conversations.

Running the household accounts mainly from her own money and wages as she seems to go through a lot of eggs, especially for Crème Brulee, then the eggs went through the dog quickly!

Avoiding ‘upstairs’ boyfriends from the past whilst she is playing at being downstairs.

Answering an enormous amount of bells being run as she speeds from downstairs to upstairs, often changing uniform as she goes.

The washing up, when there is crockery to be washed up and that she has not previously broken.

To having fun, mainly by enlisting anyone that happens to cross her path to enable her to get away with doing half of these tasks!

And when Monica has had enough or a term at a place comes to an end, she has the luxury of retreating back to her ‘upstairs’ life.

None of this is fantasy, although I am sure some is elaborated for literary effect but Monica Dickens uses this book, written over 70 years ago, to chronicle the humorous events of her foray into the working life of the working classes. It was the beginning of the 1930s and there is still very much the class divide. The First World War has had an impact but the Second is a few years off yet to make the largest change to life in domestic service and women working. Monica is bored, with the life she is leading and wants to do something even though financially she has no need to, the result of which is this book.

This book is well written and I think describes life in service well. But it is worth remembering that this is a snap shot of around 18 months in the late 1930s and although you could say Monica was perhaps playing at the role, she does it with such aplomb and good humour that you start to believe that she was born into the life….that is until she agrees to do a dish she has no idea how to make and breaks the dish she wants to serve it on……

This was a pleasant diversion of my reading and I am glad I have read it. It did make me laugh in many places, especially when she was fed up with everything she just quit to the way she roped in the man selling Hoovers to help her with things like the washing up! It harks back to an age where someone came very day to your door to see what you wanted from the baker, the milkman, the grocer. We can still have such things delivered to our doors – but it is all done so impersonally with a click of a button on the website of the shop that sells the bread, the milk, the groceries.

This book was reissued with a new cover, because of the fascination with all things upstairs and downstairs, because of the programme of the same name and of course Downton Abbey. I am glad because I would never have come across the book if it was not for that and also hearing Katherine McMahon recommend it at last years Guildford Book Festival. Her experience as a nurse are written down in One Pair of Feet which is being reissue by Virago Modern Classics in December 2013. 

It was also my book club book for May and I will be reporting about that on another post.