As we know, there have been a number of artistic and creative types among Dickens's descendants, including actors, artists, writers, and musicians. As you may or may not know -- I just found out relatively recently myself -- there was also another novelist!
Monica Dickens (1915-1992) was the daughter of Henry Charles Dickens and granddaughter of Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles Dickens's eighth son. Although she could have lived a life of ease and luxury, Monica found that prospect unbearably dull. With a curiosity and energy reminicisent of her illustrious ancestor -- and often to the bemusement of her family -- she tried acting, cooking, nursing, journalism, and counseling, and she wrote about them all. As a popular and prolific writer during the mid-twentieth century, Monica turned out novels, memoirs, children's books, and newspaper columns. "In her day," according to critic Harriet Lane, "only Daphne du Maurier had better sales figures."
But in some ways, writing had been a career move fraught with peril. In her family, "Dickens was God," she once said. "It was like someone coming along after Christ and saying they were Christ too." But she tackled it with the same pluck and enthusiasm she brought to all of her endeavors, and while she may not have been Christ -- well, she made a very creditable disciple!
Unlike Charles Dickens's works, many of Monica's have gone out of print, but she's now experiencing a bit of a renaissance. She first came to my notice after her novel Mariana was reprinted by Persephone Books, which specializes in "neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women." Below, I review that and one of her other books; tomorrow, I'll be reviewing a third one.
- One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens. Originally published in 1939. Reprinted by Academy Chicago Publishers, 1998.
"In a flash it came to me:
"'I'll have a job!'
"I said it out loud and it sounded pretty good to me, though my dog didn't seem to be deeply moved."
With that decision, Monica Dickens cast class distinctions to the wind, and embarked on a strenuous -- and side-splitting -- career as a "cook-general." Though she had taken cooking classes, her education had concentrated on the fancier dishes and left her a little lacking in the basics: After her spell in a French cooking school, she reports, she could make crepes suzette but couldn't boil an egg. This made for some very interesting experiences in other people's kitchens, to say the least.
One wonders, of course, what Monica's great-grandfather would have thought of all this. My speculation is that he would have liked and identified with his descendant's lively spirits and her sharp eye for quirky characters, but might have been taken aback by what she frankly calls her "messy" habits. As she scrambled to keep up with the hectic pace of a cook's life, leaving a trail of broken dishes and other debris in her wake, she sometimes reminded me of the servant in David Copperfield who kept stepping on the plates.
I also would have liked to see how some of these employers reacted to finding out that their cook was actually upper-class. But we never do, as she hid her identity -- so successfully that I found it hard to believe that she'd previously been thrown out of drama school for being unable to act. (Whether anyone would have cared at that point in time that she was, specifically, a descendant of Dickens, I'm not sure. Sometimes she used her real name, sometimes a fake one, but no one ever seems to have put two and two together.)
- Mariana by Monica Dickens. Originally published in 1940. Reprinted by Persephone Books, 2008.
This coming-of-age novel tells the story of Mary Shannon (the title is inspired by a poem of Tennyson's that plays a significant role in her life), a spirited girl who grows up in London with her widowed mother and her uncle, an actor.
There are autobiographical elements -- just like Monica, Mary gets kicked out of drama school -- but it's not, strictly speaking, an autobiographical novel. Still, Mary grows up to be pretty nearly as sharp, no-nonsense, and witty as her creator. "Mary is sometimes quite difficult to like," Harriet Lane writes in her foreword to the book, but I disagree. I found her engaging and fun. She's more vividly drawn than many of Charles Dickens's heroines, but she shares their courage and moral backbone.
The book begins on a somber note, with an adult Mary learning that her husband's ship has gone down, and anxiously waiting to find out if he survived. Then we flash back to her childhood, to learn all about what went into the making of this woman and her marriage. The author pulls us deep into Mary's unconventional but stimulating world, and then does an excellent job of building up the suspense as we come back to the present to wait with Mary for news of her husband's fate.
Tomorrow: Monica and My Fair Lady.