The introduction to Virago’s new reprint of Monica Dickens’ spirited One Pair of Feet has been written by acclaimed author Monica Lewycka, who states that the book ‘is a fascinating glimpse into a time and a culture so recent and yet so utterly changed’. Because Dickens was ‘just twenty seven’ when she wrote this volume of her memoirs, Lewycka is of the opinion that she was ‘more interested in observing the personal habits, fashions and love-lives of her colleagues than in discussing the big political issues of the day’. The introduction is marvellous at describing both Dickens and the social conditions in which she lived and worked. As she does within her fiction, Lewycka writes so well.
Dickens was a prolific author who wrote over fifty books, including a beautiful novel, Mariana, which makes up part of the Persephone list. One Pair of Feet, which was first published in 1942, is Dickens’ third book and second volume of memoirs. It follows One Pair of Hands, which recounts her experiences as a cook and ‘general servant’. The praise for her work is widespread. John Betjeman hailed her as ‘one of the most affectionate and humorous observers of the English scene’. Her wartime memoirs echo this sentiment rather wonderfully.
Lewycka describes Dickens’ tone marvellously when she says that she speaks as ‘a confiding and funny older sister letting us into her secrets; the scenes of ward life, gruesome medical procedures, snatched cigarettes… and ghastly food are horribly evocative’. Dickens’ writing style is amusing from the very first page. Indeed, One Pair of Feet begins in rather an endearing manner: ‘One had got to be something; that was obvious. But what? It seemed that women, having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once’. She chose to become a nurse after watching the film ‘Vigil in the Night’, explaining her romantic notions about what she envisaged nursing to be: ‘I was going to be a nurse in a pure white halo cap, and glide swiftly about with oxygen cylinders and, if necessary, give my life for a patient and have my name on a bronze plaque in the hospital corridor’.
The reality of nursing, she soon finds, is much different. She is very shrewd about those she meets, both on duty and in the care of the medical staff, and her anecdotes are so sharply described that it often feels as though the reader is right beside her as she goes through the long list of daily duties expected of her. When speaking about the outbreak of the Second World War and its effect upon women, she says, ‘The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming’, and in writing about the thought of joining the services, her comments go no further than, ‘I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings’.
In One Pair of Feet, Dickens takes us from her frightened beginnings as a junior, to the moment at which she receives the first red felt star to adorn her apron. Her frivolity and the little jokes which she throws in here and there are marvellous, and make the entirety so very entertaining, particularly to the modern reader.
One Pair of Feet is absorbing from the start, and is filled with Dickens’ own brand of acerbic wit. When losing her way in the hospital before her initial interview, for example, she says, ‘I was beginning to wish I had pretended to be a cripple and made the porter take me up in the lift’. In this way, her memoirs are very of their time, but to echo Lewycka’s sentiments in the introduction, it is this very detail which fills Dickens’ writing with such charm and warmth.