The popularity of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs has brought interest back to old books like Below Stairs, first published in 1968, and Rose, My Life in Service from 1975, not to mention older TV series like Flambards.
Another half-forgotten book in this category is Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands from 1939. Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, but this isn’t her main claim to fame in her series of books about her forays into the working world in the 1930s.
Monica Dickens is unusual in the stable of domestic servant memoirists as she didn’t have to take on domestic servitude to prevent herself or family from becoming destitute. She came from a wealthy family and was a debutante who came out with all the glamour of a debutante ball. She became bored with her social existence and thought, “Surely… there is more to life than going out to parties that one doesn’t enjoy with people one doesn’t like?”. She was thrown out of drama school and had taken a class in French cooking, so she decided to turn to cooking.
I have difficulty believing that anyone would do the dishes who didn’t absolutely have to, let alone scrub a stone floor on their hands and knees using a wooden handled pig’s hair brush and harsh ammonia. As I said in my October post about Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes, our ancestors had to work very hard in the domestic sphere. My children often claim (with good reason) that I seem to like the Roomba and the dishwasher more than them. It’s really that I appreciate how much work those esteemed appliances do for me, freeing up my time and energy to pursue more interesting tasks like writing blog posts (which is not something I can truthfully say about my children).
Her tone is light, but as I said, she does have the choice to go home to the comfort and support of her parents’ house. In her gentle way she sums up the cruelties acted upon the powerless servant class by saying “my jobs at various houses only served to convince me that human nature is not all it might be.” Her jobs are generally short term, but she does quit one job when a sleazy Butler tries to blackmail her.
The book is often funny as Monica Dickens points out the foibles of the personal lives of the people she meets. She makes even her most obnoxious employers amusing and shows the human side of the people below stairs. ”I threw down my sodden dishcloth and went to gatecrash the most wonderful party that was being held in the kitchen. The Butler, a sporting old devil with white hair was taking advantage of his possession of the wine cellar key to celebrate his birthday in the best champagne and port that the house could offer. There he sat, jigging one the the parlourmaids on his knee.”
Unfortunately this is the only book by Monica Dickens that our library owns. She also wrote books about her other jobs as a nurse, One Pair Of Feet (1942,) and in a newspaper office, My Turn To Make The Tea (1951), and later went on to become a successful novelist and children’s book writer. One Pair of Hands will suit people interested in the upstairs/downstairs conflicts of Downton Abbey, but it will also be appreciated by readers of domestic humorists like Erma Bombeck.
Check the WRL catalog for One Pair of Hands.