New review: Tales of low-paid work
Jess McCabe // 4 April 2008
Monica Dickens worked as a cook, servant, nurse, in an aircraft factory and as a junior reporter. Cazz Blase reviews her unsentimental portraits of working life in the first half of the 20th century
Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, can, like Jessica Mitford, be seen to be a writer who came from a privileged background and who, ultimately, rejected that background, transcending the British class system in the process. They were of the same generation and, whereas Mitford’s life was considerably more scandalous, Dickens’ own was not without controversy. She was expelled from St Paul’s Girls’ School in London and, after doing the deb circuit, went into service, mainly (it appears) out of sheer boredom and a desire to earn her own money. She worked as a cook and general servant, and the experience formed her first book, One Pair Of Hands, now collected in Chronicle of a Working Life.
A number of well-paid middle class women have, in recent years, dallied with unedifying, hard, badly paid work in the name of investigative journalism (Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel And Dimed: Undercover In Low Wage America being two examples), but I would venture that Dickens’ book is unique, firstly, because she was, if not the first (and I don’t believe that she was) to write an exposé of low-paid work, possibly the only one to go into the profession in question without an agenda.