Friday, July 15, 2011

My Turn to Make the Tea (1951) by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens, a great-granddaughter of Charles, quit her upper-middle class surroundings to go and work, in turns, as a servant, a hospital nurse, and a junior reporter on a provincial newspaper. Each occupation gave life to a book, with this one being the last of the three. It is supposed to be autobiography rather than a proper novel, and it has a few very brief moments where the author is seen to merge with the first-person narrator, but generally it is so vivid in incident and character, so fluid in its storytelling, that one can't help assuming a lot of artistic license. Life sometimes does imitate art, but not this consistently. Monica Dickens starts as a mildly annoying narrator - she seems to be looking on her low-class colleagues and neighbours with all the superiority of her origins, upbringing, education and taste, even at times with bitchiness. But gradually she - as the author and the character - comes to accept these people as her own, at least for a while. Yet whatever happens, she cannot entirely avoid the suspicion of just slumming there - and this gives the book an interesting ambiguity, with the narrator being an insider and an outsider at the same time, setting the book apart from others depicting a roughly similar milieu (like Slaves of Solitude or Of Love and Hunger). The final sacrifice by the narrator is more than ambiguous; it's not just that she does not really have all that much to lose, but also that by making the sacrifice she is at the same time rejecting the life among these people and going away to bigger and better things.

Dickens had her Sun and Mercury in Taurus, and it shows in the book in the abundance of earthy qualities. She does not shirk from the ugliness, the squalor, the vulgarity (especially in the earlier chapters, and very much in contrast to the light-hearted title). There is drabness and dreariness pervading the pages - very much in line with the other Dickens - but where Charles aimed at grotesque and caricatural effects, Monica almost goes for downright freakishness, sometimes near-horror. It is the world of the Ealing comedies, and just as addictive, but strictly the underside of it.

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