Today’s post sees me slipping back into library mode with One Pair of Hands, a book that I reserved after having heard about it from a borrower. As a domestic service memoir, it caught my attention since I had previously read Margaret Powell’s book, Below Stairs (1968) about her life as a housemaid in the 1920s, as well as Victory in the Kitchen by Annie Gray (telling the story of Georgina Landemare, who eventually became cook to the Churchills). Of course, the book by Monica Dickens (1915-1992) really belongs in a different category to the other two, as her middle-class background meant that she had no need to earn a living (or at least, certainly not as a domestic servant)
The tagline on this paperback edition (2011 reprint) gives a clue to the tone of the book, ‘From upstairs to downstairs in this charming 1930s memoir’. It was originally published in 1939 as the result of a couple of years that Monica Dickens spent working in a domestic service capacity. Dickens wrote that she didn’t know what to do after her finishing school and debs presentation. She questioned that, ‘there must be something more to life than going out to parties that one doesn’t enjoy, with people one doesn’t even like?’ The upshot of her musing was that she decided to get a job. But as what, she wondered? She was interested in cooking, having attended a French cookery school in London and learnt some basic skills at another cookery school.
The attitude of her chosen domestic service agency towards relevant experience and references seemed to be rather casual. No LinkedIn for CV checking in those days. And as Monica Dickens said herself, she was not really qualified to do anything. Yet this did not seem to stop the agency sending her out to prospective employers. Neither did it prevent several families from taking her on. I was intrigued by the fact that there she was attempting to fulfil the same role that the Dickens family’s cook-general played. When Dickens went to register with an agency the interviewer, ‘hinted in a delicate way that she wondered why I was looking for this sort of job.’ She had to resort to inventing family troubles to be convincing, claiming that her mother was a widow.
As Dickens came from a comfortable middle-class background, so her time spent ‘in service’ could be seen as merely slumming, a way to pass her time. Having said that, she certainly seemed to work hard. After registering with the employment agency, she did a variety of jobs, both live-in and out. Over the course of time, Dickens undertook several roles involving cooking, cleaning, maid’s duties, waitressing at functions and childcare. Several of the homes in which she was employed were suburban houses, with small households, which to me, did not seem to have an obvious need for domestic help. These were of course live-out posts as the houses did not have the capacity for anything else. I wonder if the decision to have staff in a comparatively normal-sized property was from a sense that appearances had to be kept up regardless. It was either that or lose face by scrubbing your own kitchen floor and making your own morning tea I suppose. All jobs seemed to be paid in cash, which I assume was par for the course in that type of work. Having said that, on occasions Dickens ended up having to use her own money to replace breakages. It was fortunate for her that she wasn’t a genuine kitchen maid/cook or that could have been a real financial blow.
There was plenty of chaos during Dickens’ period of domestic service. Inexperience played a large part here. She was self-confessedly not very keen on or good at cleaning. Monica describes one employer, ‘keeping a sharp look-out for signs of dirt and neglect, and me trying to disguise my slovenliness with subterfuge.’ It sounds as though some of the kitchens under her management were in a dire state, though perhaps that was exaggerated for the book. I was wondering whether the names of any of her employers had been changed for publication. She does not indicate that however. Even if she had, I would to love to know if any of her erstwhile employers recognised themselves or their kitchens if they or their friends read the book.
The memoir is humorous (and indeed, charming) detailing Dickens’ various domestic adventures with recalcitrant boilers (‘no woman ought to have to look after a boiler. They’re simply not made that way – it’s like overarm bowling’); exasperating tradesmen, kitchen breakages and pernickety or unpleasant employers. To say nothing of her desperate attempts at effective time management in the kitchen. And crucially, she could walk out of an unsatisfactory job if needs be, knowing that she was not relying on it to put bread on the table, ‘As I felt sure of getting another job, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t decamp before I got into a complete rut.’ Monica was fortunate in occupying a completely different place in the domestic service hierarchy to Margaret Powell (1907-1984) or Georgina Landemare (1882-1978).
Monica Dickens’ experiences do highlight the sheer drudgery of domestic work in those days. This drudgery would also apply to any housewife who had to labour in her own home. Similarly, the memoir shows us the poor working and living conditions that domestic staff would have put up with, not having any choice in the matter. Nobody worried about the kind of mattress the servants slept on. Despite this, Dickens does not seriously critique the structure of domestic service and the vastly unequal relationship between employer and servant. As Margaret Powell, looking back on her service in the 1920s expressed it, ‘We always called them ‘Them’, ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil.’
But it was all good material for Monica Dickens the budding writer, as One Pair of Hands was the first book in a long and successful writing career, both for adults and children.
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