Alex In Leeds

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Review: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Category: Fiction/WWII – Paperback: 221 pages – Publisher: Penguin Books – Source: My own shelves
First Published: 1942

Another old orange Penguin book on my shelf, this is a book I shuffled closer to the top of my To Be Read pile last year thinking it might make an interesting addition to my century of books challenge…

When World War Two broke out Monica Dickens (who’d already published two books, including one about working in some odd jobs) signed up as a nurse and went to work in a hospital, this book is a non-fiction account of her experiences there. It’s mostly made up of descriptions of other nurses, the routines within the hospital and wards and humour about having to wear cuffs in the hallway and troublesome patients, terrible meals in the refectory, the steady supply of gossip and climbing in windows when out after curfew.

‘It was now that I first sensed the faint antagonism that all Day Sisters have for the night nurses on their ward. There is the suspicion that, behind their back, one will trifle with their beloved machine. Wherever possible, the blame for a mishap is pinned on the night nurses. It is they who have broken that syringe to which no one will confess; they who ate that jelly and stole Sister’s ginger biscuits…’
(Page 84)

I actually rather liked it. Dickens has an eye for detail and is good at telling a tale about hiding a broken thermometer or trying to stay awake on night duty, but because she was in Windsor (she changes it’s name to Redwood in the book) not London or somewhere more affected by the war her experiences skate along on a very jolly, largely inconsequential level. There’s one night out that is interrupted by a sudden influx of severe burns cases that come from a factory accident and a couple of German pilots find their way to the ward but mostly she spends her days caring for geriatrics, new mothers and private patients.

Presumably that was exactly what the original audience wanted – the sense that England was going on in true English fashion with babies born every night and brave, funny nurses bending the rules occasionally but caring for their charges when it mattered – but it wasn’t what I was expecting and I was disappointed by it. Entirely my fault of course, I don’t read blurbs much and the combination of the opening page (debating what war work Dickens should sign up for and explaining why she chose nursing) and the publication date led me to assume the war would be a far more prominent feature of the book that it was.

If you’re going to pick this up yourself let it be for the amusement of either Dickens’ tales of getting in trouble or curiosity of what nursing was like in the 1930s and 1940s – her descriptions of making meals on the wards and trying to juggle a thousand and one tasks in the sluice room between patients ringing for help are interesting enough in their own right without any war specific tales. After all, the humour comes from someone as ill-suited to the strict discipline as Dickens clearly was being forced by the war to knuckle down and write short stories at 03:00 in between never-ending rounds.

I wouldn’t have picked this up without the misunderstanding about it being an account of nursing that happens to be from 1942 rather than about a hospital in wartime specifically (nursing tales really aren’t something I’d go for normally) but Dickens’ wry digs at those around her kept me reading and it’s proved to be an interesting introduction to Dickens’ style. She’s a bit of a snob, her snarking can sound a little whiny at times and there’s some casual racism that made me twitch… but on the whole I’m very curious to read more of her work. Perhaps I’ll try one of her novels next.

This book counts for the year 1942 in my 20th Century of Books.

Further Reading: A Penguin A Week hated it, Leaves and Pages loved it

Buy the book: Book Depository

List of books read in 2014 / Index of Non-Fiction

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Author: Alex in Leeds

Book reviewer, blogger, photographer and adventuress who completed 101 goals in 1001 days. I can be found on Twitter as @AlexInLeeds.

8 thoughts on “Review: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

  1. Interesting…

    You know, I never really thought of One Pair of Feet as a “wartime” book. It is really just another nursing memoir, with the war sort of there in the background. Perhaps it is because with the overwhelming minutae of trying to survive as a nurse-probationer, everything in the outside world was very much off-stage. The hospital was very much a cloistered community of women, despite those occasional trips out the bedroom window. I think that this comes through in the memoir, the isolation from the “real” world, and it was one of the reasons MD gives that she decided to leave nursing and seek employment where she could actually *see* her contribution to the war effort. Aren’t her last words something to the effect of, “I want to go and help make Spitfires”?

    Might I recommend what is likely my favourite MD book, one that *does* concern the war and which gives a rather wonderful picture of ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances (in a very domestic way), The Fancy. The fictional-but-obviously-based-on-real-experience (for the details of the factory are too arcane to be made up) book follows Edward Ledward, a young man employed as a charge hand in a fighter plane factory, and it branches off to follow each of the women on his crew, linking everything together in a most satisfying fashion. It’s a book which doesn’t get much press, but it is a small masterpiece of strytelling and to me epitomizes the very best elements of this author’s talent.

    It’s a wonderfully drawn period piece of life during wartime, and I think you would find it very interesting. (And it’s rather humorous in a real-life ironic sort of way.) The characters are completely alive and real.

  2. I’ve yet to read any Monica Dickens – I’m sort of circling her at the moment – but I have this one on the shelf in a quirky old Mermaid Books volume. I imagined I would find it fairly familiar as my mother was an old-style nurse (albeit an auxiliary). We shall see!

  3. Considering the writer was young and still learning I could understand her impatience with those around her. We’re all whiny when young aren’t we? Anxious to perfect the world and get on with it? I have this book and would probably be one of those people who enjoys it b/c I like mundane nursing tales. It was interesting to read what others thought of it too. I’ll have to drag it out. Enjoyed your review.

  4. I expected this to be more about the war, I think because I’d read her autobiography first – which also covers her time working in an airplane factory, and that has to be the background of the book that Barb mentions (which is now on my reading list).

  5. I didn’t think this was a amusing as One Pair of Hands (and there was considerable more – and appropriate – pathos too, I thought in ‘Feet’) but with that one there’s always the sense that she was doing it for good copy rather than to earn a living.

  6. Alex, you must read her novel Mariana! Persephone publish it in a beautiful edition and it’s completely heavenly – as comforting and enjoyable as I Capture the Castle.

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