New review: Tales of low-paid work

// 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.

Read on here

Comments From You

Deborah // Posted 4 April 2008 at 11:12 pm

I read these books when I was a girl, and I think I still have them stashed somewhere on my bookshelves. I remember being struck at the time by the idea that a middle class woman would go and work as a servant – were there so few career options available that this was all she was able to do? As for the time she spent training to be a nurse – I couldn’t understand why more of the young women didn’t just walk out the door. The institutional practices were abominable.

Thanks for the review, and for the reminder that these books are well worth re-reading.

Jane // Posted 5 April 2008 at 3:10 pm

I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel And Dimed and don’t think it’s fair to say she ‘dallied’ in low paid work as though she worked for a day in Walmart and then skipped back to her well paid job. Ehrenreich spent many months working as a cleaner and then at Walmart. Her agenda if you could call it that was to find out how an able bodied, hard working person could still be living in poverty in the richest country in the world. She explored how rich governments have a vested interest in keeping the ‘working poor’ in subservient, badly paid jobs and the appalling tactics used against groups who attempt to fight for better conditions through unionisation (and union busters are coming over here btw). In short, she exposed the lie that is the American Dream. Most of what she says is relevant to the UK and it’s also a brilliant read. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

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