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Posts Tagged ‘Monica Dickens’

Monica Dickens is a writer I was first introduced to as a teenager through her books One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea. They remain favourites with many readers I’m sure. Many children read the Follyfoot books, but they passed me by I’m afraid. It was Persephone books of course who were responsible for me reading her again, many decades later with their re-issues of Mariana and The Winds of Heaven. She was of course a fairly prolific writer – but as with so many women writers of this period most of her work remains out of print. I was pleased therefore to happen across this pretty book club edition in a second-hand book shop last year. No More Meadows is an excellent study of a disastrously unhappy marriage, but what I really liked is how the novel builds slowly – and Dicken’s allows us to really get to know the central character through her family.

It’s 1950 and Christine Cope is in her thirties, unmarried, working in a large London store where she is relied upon and useful. At home a little outside of London, she lives with her father and aunt, rather a lot of dogs a cat and a pair of love birds. Her father can be a bit difficult; her Aunt Josephine is an absolute darling, forgetful, romantic and a little eccentric, she is the person who keeps Christine sane. Near by lives her cousin Geoffrey (and his mother, a less cosy aunt) and when he doesn’t have a better offer, he sometimes deigns to take Christine out with him in the evening – though neither of them seem to enjoy themselves that much. During their most recent excursion Geoffrey is injured and forced to stay in Christine’s house, where Christine must help her aunt minister to him. Geoffrey proves a pretty grumpy patient.

“Christine had wanted to continue the conversation where she was, with the unappetising tray of dressings balanced on her hip. The most interesting things never cropped up when you were sitting comfortably in chairs. It was always in transient places like halls or staircases or bathroom doorways that the really important things started to be said and you had to discuss them then and there, because the mood was lost if you moved away to a more suitable place.”

Monica Dickens’ portrait of this family – which include Christine’s absurd brother and his wife and children who come every Sunday for lunch – was one of the things I liked best about this novel.

One day in a London square Christine meets an American naval officer – Commander Vinson Gaegler. They just exchange a few polite words and move on – but a couple of weeks later, Christine finds herself serving him in the book department where she works. There are soon more meetings, dinner at the American naval headquarters – which seem unaffected by the rationing still in place elsewhere. In time Vinson is introduced to the family, and they become used to seeing Vinson’s large, sleek American car parked outside the family home.  

With Vinson soon to return to Washington, Christine is somewhat surprised by his proposal. The reader is perhaps already wondering if this can work, Vinson has clearly set ideas about what a woman is and isn’t, he’s quite traditional and takes offence easily. Christine will be leaving so much behind her, she has no idea what the life of a naval officer’s wife might be like, has of course never been to America. A family crisis and domestic upheavals at home almost thwart the engagement – but eventually Christine decides to throw her lot in with Vinson, and a few weeks after he leaves for Washington – she is setting sail to start her new life.

“Christine was about to say that she did not see that it mattered, but fortunately, before they could start another of those small dissensions that crept upon them sometimes out of their different points of view, Vinson turned down a side street and said: ‘I’m going to take you past the church where we’re going to be married tomorrow. That’s why I brought you this way, though it’s not the quickest route to the hotel.’ He was always much exercised about knowing the shortest way from place to place.”  

As she soon finds out being the wife of a naval officer comes with all kinds of rules. Then there is the social side – which quickly starts to pall – and means she has to be very nice to people she really doesn’t like and isn’t allowed to be friends with those she finds more interesting. Christine’s life starts to become a little bit suffocating; Vinson begins to control more and more of her life – and though Christine insists to herself that she loves her husband, it becomes clear that she isn’t really happy.

This is probably the kind of novel where the reader never really expects a perfectly happy ending, there is a kind of sad inevitability to the bleak picture Dickens leaves us with. While I dislike giving spoilers, I know other readers might appreciate knowing in advance that this isn’t all crumpets by the fire at the end. Having said all that, I really enjoyed the novel – it’s a fabulous portrait of post war life on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a sobering exploration of an unhappy marriage.

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Another winner from the marvelous Persephone books, number 90 from their list. The second Monica Dickens they have re-published. The Winds of Heaven is a beautifully constructed novel. Louise is a widow forced by financial hardship to depend on her grown up daughters to home her for half the year, while she winters at a friend’s hotel the rest of the time.  Her daughters are each selfish, and difficult, in different ways and Louise is never able to feel at home, or properly useful where ever she goes.  Gentle and uncomplaining she has developed a lovely relationship with one of her eldest daughter’s children, Ellen, a child Louise feels needs her, as she too is isolated and lonely, not quite fitting into her own family. One day when at a Lyons house in London Louise meet Gordon Disher, a big fat man who sells beds and writes thrillers under a pseudonym. This new friendship comes to delight Louise and confound her family who often tease her about “her salesman”. As Louise moves from one daughter’s home to the next  trying her best to fit in to their lives, and help them with their problems, she begins to find her position more and more intolerable.

I loved every bit of this lovely book, with it’s dramatic climax and a wholly satisfying ending.

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