Archive for the ‘Monica Dickens’ Category

IMG_20150824_211833 (3)I’m in the middle of Man Overboard by Monica Dickens and, rather to my surprise, enjoying it.  I have very mixed feelings about Dickens.  Some of her books I’ve loved (Mariana, The Happy Prisoner) while others I have considered a complete waste of paper and reading time (The Winds of Heaven and, to some extent, One Pair of Hands).  These experiences have been enough to scare me off reading her other books for fear of what I should find.  But it hasn’t stopped me from accumulating her books.  Just this year I’ve picked up lovely hard cover editions of Man Overboard and The Heart of London.  And now, with a courageous leap, I’m even reading one of them!

Man Overboard is the story of Ben Francis, a widowed naval officer of no particular distinction who finds himself released from the Navy with no particular aptitude or interest for any line of work.  I’m only half-way through right now but have been impressed by Dickens’ effortless handling of the male point of view (something that she did brilliantly in The Happy Prisoner, too) and her fantastic minor characters.  Chief among these is Amy, Ben’s ten year old daughter, whose ever-changing personality is tiresome for her father but entertaining for this reader at least.

We first meet her in the role of a meek, obedient milksop:

Amy, who was never the same child for more than few weeks at a time, was having one of her old-fashioned periods, when she called Ben Father, and was rather stiff and formal with him.  Since it made her more docile too, in a beaten down Victorian sort of way, it was one of her easiest disguises to cope with; but it made her rather dull, and the lunch, which was a celebration of her tenth birthday, was not being very gay.

A few weeks later, she is a boisterous, jolly-hockey-sticks sort of schoolgirl:

Amy came noisily into the room in a thick blue school overcoat with the collar turned up.  She had been playing in a hockey match.  She was in the fourth eleven, and she was very sporting at the moment, because she was in love with a girl called Fiona Maclaren, who was captain of the first eleven.  She wore her long bronze hair in tight pigtails and affected a slightly rolling walk.

And then, naturally enough, there are then moments where she can’t quite decide what kind of character is called for:

She had been keyed up to play the part of the tight-lipped hero’s daughter, or the fisherman’s child, waiting at the cottage window with her eyes glued on the storm-tossed sea.

In all these reincarnations, she feels more like a real child than the last hundred or so I’ve encountered in any book.  I’m looking forward to reading on and seeing how many more personalities she assumes before we reach the end.

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The Happy PrisonerAfter my first very successful encounter with Bloomsbury Reader (Another Part of the Wood), I quickly downloaded another of their e-books from my library.  First published in 1946, The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens is another gem, an intelligent but light character-driven novel about a wounded soldier trying his best to council his family members through their various crises.

The war is over but nothing has gone back to normal for Oliver North: he is lying in bed in his mother’s house, waiting for his leg to heal after the bottom half was amputated and for his weak heart to get stronger, it having been damaged by shrapnel in the same attack that damaged his leg.  Unable to move from the main floor room where his bed is set up, Oliver watches his family’s lives go on around him, happily doing his best to steer them when they come to him for guidance:

How wise Oliver felt lying here, knowing he could run people’s lives better than they could themselves.  He had visions of himself as the oracle and influence of the household, but it was difficult to be either an oracle or an influence when people kept going away and you could not get up and follow them and make them listen.

Elder sister Violet, horse faced and happier in pants than skirts, finds herself with an unexpected chance at romance.  Younger sister Heather, mother of two small children, has been struggling for years as a single parent, ever since her husband was captured as a POW in Asia.  Now that he has returned from the East, she is struggling to readjust to the man she once adored but now barely knows.  Others bustle in and out of Oliver’s room – a young cousin, an old girlfriend, his brothers-in-law, and, of course, his doting mother – everyone telling calm, steady Oliver their troubles.  Everyone, that is, but Elizabeth, Oliver’s invaluable but reserved nurse.

What a wonderful discovery this was!  I adored my first encounter with Dickens (Mariana) but since then had begun to wonder if she was for me, having had mixed reactions to the books I had read since then.  While I don’t particularly enjoy her much-admired memoirs (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc), I really do enjoy her fiction.  Dickens’ writing is simple but admirably so.  She writes clearly and with great humour and, something I am coming to appreciate more and more, has complete control over the pacing of the story.  It never drags or rushes but proceeds at exactly the right rate towards the happy ending.  Another great offering from Bloomsbury Reader!

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I feel rather guilty about saying this because it is a Persephone book and I really, really want to love everything they publish (well, everything aside from The Making of a Marchioness, but I was hoping that would be the only exception) but I did not enjoy The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens.  I loved Dickens’ Mariana and thoroughly enjoyed One Pair of Hands but none of the energy or humour so evident in those works is present here.  Instead, we have the rather toothless tale of the pathetic Louise who after her husband’s death finds herself destitute and reliant on the generosity of her three indifferent daughters.

It begins promisingly enough, setting up Louise and her three self-centered daughters, giving you an excellent sense of each woman.  But then absolutely nothing happens.  Louise is traded off between the three, pausing only for a humiliating winter stint at a friend’s hotel on the south coast, and is incredibly insipid and resigned about the whole thing.  She dotes on her eldest granddaughter Ellen (otherwise ignored by her parents), is fond of her sluttish youngest daughter’s husband, Frank, and forms an attachment to Gordon Disher, a trashy-novel-writing bed salesmen.  But she’s just such an indistinct character and is so frustratingly passive about her life!  So much happens around her but she does next to nothing to improve her situation.  And yes, frankly, if she has three daughters who don’t particularly want her around, then she has only herself to blame.  If they’re apathetic towards their mother’s plight and borderline negligent, it’s because their mother was too weak to show them what they should have been.

I think what frustrated me most was the pointlessly episodic structure of the book.  Each section felt so much the same, so repetitive and unvarying.  Admittedly, I’m sure that’s how Louise’s life felt as well, being shuttled from location to location only to be treated with the same indifference and benign neglect wherever she landed.  But, as I reader, I do want some plot, some indication that something might one day happen.  There was no tension, no real sense of suspense to entice me to continue reading.  In fact, I was so disinterested in both the characters and the plot that I had to abandon the book for more than a week after I started reading it, even though I had less than a hundred pages left at the time I did so.  I had hoped that a break might allow me to come back with a fresh perspective, ready to appreciate…something.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

I was equally bothered by the unwavering, almost sentimental sympathy with which Dickens’ treats her protagonist.  I can neither like nor respect Louise and felt vaguely insulted that Dickens’ seemed to think I should feel otherwise.  She is a sad creature, to be sure, but that alone cannot win her my compassion. 

Mostly, I just feel sad for what this book could have been had Dickens infused it with even an ounce of sharpness; an acerbic bite of wit would have been most welcome.  It is competent storytelling but it never asserts itself as anything other than average.

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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How better to end Persephone Reading Week than with a quote from the very first Persephone book I read, not all that long ago:

If Paris had a feeling of its own in the air, so had England, but you only noticed it when you had been away.  It was a feeling of damp, fresh security.  Everything looked so right and so comfortably unexotic, like a cabbage.

~ Mariana by Monica Dickens, p. 255

I’ve added many, many titles to my wish list  (and ordered several of them already) based on the enticing reviews so many bloggers have shared over the last few days.  My excitement has spilled over into my non-blogging life and I’ve been praising the books to all my friends  and coworkers (as well as the librarians at my local branch, who can’t help but flip through the lovely Persephone Classics whenever I come to check them out).  Hopefully, my enthusiasm will encourage at least some of these acquaintances to discover the delights of the Persephone books for themselves.

Many thanks to Claire and Verity for hosting a wonderful week!

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After my great enjoyment of Mariana  and reading Simon at Stuck In A Book’s glowing endorsement, I couldn’t wait to read One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens.  Unlike Mariana, this is a non-fiction book (though one can’t help but feel that it must be at least slightly embellished) but it’s certainly just as amusing.

Bored with her privileged, undemanding life, Monica decides to strike out into the workforce as a (untested) cook in what her family refers to as a “period of strange and regrettable madness”(p.203-204).  It’s very much a life-below-stairs story, from a woman more accustomed to being served than serving and it’s vastly amusing.  From job to job, Monica pokes fun at her employers, her (lack of) skills, and the master/servant relationship in general.  No one comes off unscathed, frankly, from the most demanding of employers, who want her to do everything and to not to spend any money doing it, to the most indulgent, who chat with her and treat her almost as one of the family. 

While I am always fond of a book that makes me laugh, I didn’t end up liking this one as much as I’d hoped to.  It was certainly amusing, but a slightly too formulaic and repetitive – regardless of where Monica works, there’s going to be flirting/fighting with tradespeople, at least one disastrous dinner party, many broken dishes, and a few clandestine nips of the cooking sherry/brandy/port.  There’s also an overall consciousness that Monica’s slumming it and having a good joke on all of her employers that seems a little cruel and makes me slightly uncomfortable.  I can understand the boredom that comes with too much money and too little employment, but this still seems a strange way to deal with.

That said, I would still highly recommend it and One Pair of Feet, Dickens’ memoir of her life as a nurse, is firmly on my To Be Read list.

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Do you ever find books that you love, but wish you had found years ago and be able to read for the first time when you were at a very different point in your life?  That’s how I feel about Monica Dickens’ Mariana, which I had never even heard of until last year.

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. (Persephone Books description)

 Even having seen it compared with favourites like I Capture the Castle and The Pursuit of Love, I wasn’t quite prepared for how hilarious Mariana is.  I was kept smiling throughout the book by lines like: “Ever since her husband had forgotten her at a wedding and taken the car home without her, she was always expecting to be forgotten, even by people who could not conceivably have had too much champagne” (P. 27).  Mary Shannon, though in no way particularly special or remarkable herself, is a great criticizer of those around her, making for both intentional and unintentional humour, as we are exposed to her opinions on schoolmates, acquaintances and family members.

The plot is comfortable, rather than remarkable, the normal coming-of-age set up.  Idyllic childhoods spent running around unchaperoned in the country, awful school days, misguided (but oh so amusing) aspirations to become an actress, fantastically glamourous and romantic days in Paris (and a love interest to suit) before finally settling down to a somewhat normal life in London and, of course, the introduction of the Ideal Man (who is lovely and wonderful and everything that the Ideal Man should be, even able to overcome being named Samson). 

As much as I enjoyed this book now, I needed this book at thirteen or fourteen.  Like most girls who read too much, I was far too inclined to take myself seriously and to take the world around me seriously as well (very dangerous and far too reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel).  I read too many books that were of this same type but without the humour that elevates it and makes it worth reading.  Eventually, I found the right books, but there were a few rather embarrassing years there, filled with affectation and precociousness.  I internalized most of these feelings (knowing, as I did, that no one around me had sufficient understanding to grasp the depth of my emotions and thoughts, so extraordinary were they) and have only terribly, terribly awful diary entries and poetry to remember them by – the worst of which were burned, the rest kept to laugh at.  As much as I know that it was a necessary step in my development, both as a reader and as an adult, there are times I wish I could go back and shake some sense into my silly little self, pointing her in the right direction with books like this one.

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