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One Pair Of Hands – Monica Dickens

I’ve read Mariana (the Persephone edition), which I enjoyed, so when a friend lent me this I was keen to try it.

Here’s the blurb …

 What does a young, well-off English woman do with herself when she’s thrown out of acting school and is tired of being a debutante? Well, if you’re Monica Dickens, you become a cook. She makes the plunge to a life “below the stairs,” confident in her abilities to be a cook because she once took a course in French cuisine. She quickly learns the difference between school learning and real life. Scalded milk, dropped roasts, and fallen souffles plague her in her domestic career, but she perseveres. What makes this book so delightful is the sense of humor and drama Monica Dickens brings to her work. From dressing up for job interviews in a “supporting-a-widowed-mum look” to eavesdropping on dinner guests, she tackles her work with an enthusiasm for discovery. To her descriptions of battles with crazy scullery maids, abusive employers, and unwieldy custards, she brings a humorous and pointed commentary about the delicate and ongoing war between the wealthy and their servants. Written in 1939, this true-life experience reveals a writer who wasted no opportunity to explore daily lives and dramas. Her keen eye for detail, youthful resilience, and sense of the absurd make One Pair of Hands a deliciously inside look at the households of the British upper-class.

There are some fabulous laugh out loud moments in this memoir. It is worth reading just for the social history and when she tries to act the part at the interview (it always involves a sensible and frumpy hat).

It is written in a really chatty style – you can imagine sitting down with Ms Dickens over tea and being regaled with these stories. The work was hard and long – she arrived early to prepare breakfast and needed to stay to tidy up after dinner parties (which she cooked and served). This was all in a time before dish washers!

It’s definitely worth reading this memoir – it’s light, entertaining and a quick read. And now I know what a Cook General is meant to do.

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Filed under Memoir, Recommended

Mariana – Monica Dickens


I loved this book. It was definitely of its time and is probably a bit dated now.

Here is what Amazon.co.uk has to say about it …

Monica Dickens’s first book, published in 1940, could easily have been called Mariana – an Englishwoman. For that is what it is: the story of a young English girl’s growth towards maturity in the 1930s. We see Mary at school in Kensington and on holiday in Somerset; her attempt at drama school; her year in Paris learning dressmaking and getting engaged to the wrong man; her time as a secretary and companion; and her romance with Sam. We chose this book because we wanted to publish a novel like Dusty Answer, I Capture the Castle or The Pursuit of Love, about a girl encountering life and love, which is also funny, readable and perceptive; it is a ‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon. But it is more than this. As Harriet Lane remarks in her Preface: ‘It is Mariana’s artlessness, its enthusiasm, its attention to tiny, telling domestic detail that makes it so appealing to modern readers.’ And John Sandoe Books in Sloane Square (an early champion of Persephone Books) commented: ‘The contemporary detail is superb – Monica Dickens’s descriptions of food and clothes are particularly good – and the characters are observed with vitality and humour. Mariana is written with such verve and exuberance that we would defy any but academics and professional cynics not to enjoy it.’

And I think that pretty much sums it up – definitely worth reading if you liked I Capture the Castle. I haven’t read the two others they mention in the review, but I shall be looking out for them.

Here are some other reviews …



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Filed under Fiction - Light, Recommended