Book Reviews

One Pair of Hands: From Upstairs to Downstairs, in this charming 1930s memoir by Monica Dickens

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List Price: £8.99

 

Paperback: 320 Pages.

Published: 15 September 2011 by Ebury Press

ISBN: 0091944686

EAN: 9780091944681

'Life was a wordless battle of wits between us, with her keeping a sharp look-out for signs of neglect, and me trying to disguise my slovenliness by subterfuge. I became an adept at sweeping dust under the bed, and always used the same few pieces of silver'

Unimpressed by the world of debutante balls, Monica Dickens shocked her family by getting a job. With no experience whatsoever, she gained employment as a cook-general.

Monica's cooking and cleaning skills left much to be desired, and her first few positions were short lived, but soon she started to hold her own. Monica discovered the pleasure of daily banter with the milkman and grocer's boy and the joy of doing an honest day's work, all the while keeping a wry eye on the childish pique of her employers.

One Pair of Hands is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining memoir of life upstairs and downstairs in the early 1930s.

Reviews

4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars  by Anne

A downstairs life for an upstairs girl

Monica is a reasonably privileged young woman who is rather bored with the endless round of parties and other enjoyment activities which makes up her existence and who decides to add some enjoyment, or possibly meaning, to her life by taking employment as a cook/maid. Remember that the book is written in 1939 when most households with a reasonable income would have had servants so there are plenty of opportunities. Monica obtains suitable clothing, unlike her usual attire, and makes up a story to disguise her background and then launches into a series of jobs with various employers.

The stories in the book are undoubtedly exaggerated and changed in order to make them amusing, which they are, but there is a lot of interesting stuff here about servants were treated and what they were expected to do for their money. In addition to what the author intended there is also, for the modern reader, some interesting social history to be gleaned from what the author doesn’t mention or bring to the attention. For example, the author makes a lot of the huge amount of work which she is required to do in some places and also of how her time off is regularly eaten into by the demands of her employer but I was often taken aback by the different expectations of men and women which she obviously regards as normal as well as the trust that people placed in others by allowing them to have access to their personal space.

The stories the author tells are very interesting and make excellent light reading whilst also showing the disadvantages of the social relationship between the servant and the employer (not to mention the iniquities of the agencies and their commission demands). Monica works in a large country house, for a couple, for a single person, and on occasion for parties and events. Reading this book will make you grateful for the present day and our labour saving devices although you may long for the times when someone else did your cleaning and cooking for you.

I did have a few qualms about Monica’s situation. Because she doesn’t actually need the job or the money she can display a carelessness in her work that those who needed the employment could not. I really hope that she wasn’t as incompetent as she tells us she is but I realise that we cannot assume that all servants were efficient or that they had respect for their employers.

This is an interesting and amusing book. I feel that when it was first written it may well have been enlightening to a lot of readers but for the modern audience it is more of an insight into a world now gone.

 
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