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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Monica (Enid) Dickens (1915-1992)


English writer, whose light and witty novels became hugely popular and were translated into several languages, including Finnish and Swedish. Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, gained first fame with books based on her own on experiences in working life. In 1970 she started to write the popular Follyfoot series for children.  "I want to entertain, to tell the truth, to try to help people understand other people," she once said.

"'I've been abroad. Egypt, South America, India. I've seen how they treat horses. But this poor fellow... I can't take him, so I thought of you. When I couldn't get an answer on the phone, I pushed him into the truck and brought him over. I know there is always room here for a horse in trouble.'" (in Dora at Follyfoot, 1972)

Monica Dickens was born in London. Her father was Henry Charles Dickens, a barrister-at-law; he was the son of Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, a judge, Charles Dickens' eighth child. Fanny (née Runge), her mother, was of German origin. Because of her rebellious spirit Dickens was expelled from a private girls' school in London: she wouldn't wear the school uniform. 

After studies at St. Paul's School for Girls, she traveled abroad. Dickens continued her studies at a theatre school, from where she was kicked out "for not being able to act." She then worked as a journalist, contributing to the magazine Woman's Own for twenty years. Dickens started her career as novelist with several autobiographical works.

Shocking her family, Dickens abandoned high society and took manual jobs. Her first book, One Pair of Hands (1939), she wrote in three weeks. It was based on her experiences as a cook and general servant. With humor and pointed commentary, Dickens portrayed the delicate and ongoing war between the wealthy and their servants. Also autobiographical Mariana (1940) was a story of a young woman, whose husband is at war, and who looks back over her past. The Sunday Telegraph described the book as "funny, poignant and a perfect period piece."

During World War II Monica Dickens worked in an aircraft factory repairing Spitfire fighters. One Pair of Feet (1942) was an account of her learning to be a hospital nurse during the war. The book concludes with Dickens's announcement that she will leave nursing to go and make tanks. The Happy Prisoner (1946), which was made into a play by John McNair, dealt with the relationship between a nurse, Elizabeth, and Oliver, a former officer who lost his leg in Arnheim in a battle and has a serious heart trouble. Oliver lives with his mother. Other members of the family include his sisters Violet and Heather with her son David. From the small details of their everyday life Dickens draws an optimistic picture of post-war England. Her experiences as a reporter on a local newspaper were recorded in the novel My Turn to Make the Tea  (1951).

After marrying Roy Stratton, an US-Marine officer who wrote two detective novels, Dickens moved in 1951 to the United States. When her husband retired from the navy in 1953, she moved with him to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They also had a flat in Kensington, London. Dickens continued to incorporate first-hand experiences into her novels with No More Meadows (1953) and Kate and Emma (1964), which arouse directly from her involvement with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

The Room Upstairs (1964) depicted the life of an old woman, Sybil, who becomes the prey of vacillating loyalties and bewilderments of modern society. A six-line highway slices through her farm, leaving a farmhouse on the other side and the barn on the other. Sybil, a widow of eighty, fractures her thigh after the wedding of her grandson. Dorothy Grue, a housekeeper, is hired to look after Sybil. Dorothy starts to rule the house and keeps Sybil under control by every possible means. But when Dorothy becomes interested in the herb recipes written down by Sybil's father, she will finally taste her own medicine.

Dickens worked with a number of charitable organizations and founded the first American branch of Samaritans (the suicide prevention organization) in Massachusetts in 1974. One of her projects was the erection of suicide barriers on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges across the Cape Cod canal. Cobbler's Dread (1963) emerged from her work with the RSPA and The Listeners (1970) from work with Samaritans. Around the human tragedy Dickens builds a story of human crisis, depicting the various persons, with all sorts of backgrounds, working for the organization. The central characters include Tim Shaw, a lonely young man who is unemployed, Andrew, an university student, Paul, a teacher, who can save a man who has swallowed too many sleeping pills, Sarah, a childish young wife, and Victoria, a journalist.

"'But at the last moment, because you are a human being and self-preservation is your second strongest instinct, sometimes at the last moment, you send out one more cry for help.' He laid his hand on one of the telephones on the desk. 'And it is answered. At the last moment, because you can't bear to go unnoticed into your final act, you ask someone to listen to you. And they listen.'" (in The Listeners, 1970)

Dickens's 'Follyfoot' juvenile books, which centered on tales of horses and farming communities, were based on the Yorkshire Television series, which ran from 1971-1973. Dickens's lifetime experience of riding and knowledge of everything to do with horses pervade these books, which depict people who live at Follyfoot, a Home of Rest for Horses, and their attempts to right injustices done to horses. The enemy of Follyfoot is Sidney Hammond, whose own riding stables will not bear inspection and whose loutish son makes Callie's life at school a misery. Carrie Fielding, a horse-mad dreamer, was the heroine in the World's End series, The House at the World's End (1970), Summer at the World's End (1971), World's End in Winter (1972), and Spring Comes to World's End (1973). Carrie lived in an old in and rescued and cared for ill-treated animals.

Dickens's autobiography, An Open Book, came out in 1978. She lived in Cape Cod until the death of her husband in 1985. After selling the house in North Falmouth, she returned to England, settling in Brightwalton, Berkshire. Her later works include Closed at Dusk  (1990), a story of revenge, and Scarred  (1991), about a man who believes that plastic surgery can solve all of his problems. In late 1990 Dickens fell ill with cancer of the colon. Her final novel was One of the Family, which appeared posthumously in 1993. Dickens died on December 25, 1992, at the age of 77, at a hospital in Reading, England.

For further reading: Monica Dickens: A Chronological List of Her Writings with Brief Biographical Notes, compiled by David Green (2000); 'Introduction' by Carlton Jackson, in Befriending by Monica Dickens (1996); World Authors 1950-1970, ed.  John Wakeman (1975); Women and the World Today by P. Chambers (1963); Author by Profession by J. Leasor (1952)

Selected works:

  • One Pair of Hands, 1939
  • Mariana, 1940
  • One Pair Of Feet, 1942
    - film: The Lamp Still Burns, 1943, prod. by Two Cities Films, dir.  Maurice Elvey, starring Rosamund John, Stewart Granger, Godfrey Tearle, Sophie Stewart
  • The Fancy, 1943
  • Thursday Afternoons, 1945
  • The Happy Prisoner, 1946
    - Onnellinen vanki (suom. Kyllikki Hämäläinen, 1959)
  • Yours Sincerely, 1947 (with Beverley Nichols; selection from articles published in “Woman's Own)
  • Joy and Josephine, 1948
  • Flowers on the Grass, 1948 (story, with Martin Lane, Arthur Reid)
    - film prod. Highbury Productions, Production Facilities, dir. by Douglas Peirce, starring David Tomlinson, Andrew Crawford, Peggy Evans
  • Flowers on the Grass, 1949
  • My Turn To Make The Tea, 1951
  • Life in Her Hands, 1951 (script, with Anthony Stevens)
    - film prod. by Crown Film Unit, dir. by Philip Leacock, starring Kathleen Byron, Bernadette O'Farrell, Jacqueline Charles
  • No More Meadows, 1953
  • The Winds of Heaven, 1955
  • The Angel in the Corner, 1956
  • Man Overboard, 1958
  • The Heart of London, 1961
    - Lontoon sydän (suom. Erkki Haglund, 1962)
  • Cobbler's Dream, 1961
  • Kate and Emma, 1965
  • The Room Upstairs, 1966
    - Yläkerran huone (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1967)
  • The Landlord's Daughter, 1968
  • The House at World's End, 1970
    - Meidän joukon majatalo (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1972)
  • The Listeners, 1970 (US title: The End of the Line, 1970)
    - Kuuntelijat (suom. Anja Haglund, 1971)
  • Follyfoot, 1971
    - Hevoshoitola Varsajalka (suom. Maini Palosuo, 1972)
    - Follyfoot: TV series 1971-73, prod. by Yorkshire Television (YTV), starring Gillian Blake, Steve Hodson, Arthur English, Christian Rodska, Desmond Llewelyn
  • Summer at World's End, 1971
    - Meidän joukon kesä (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1973)
  • World's End in Winter, 1972
    - Meidän joukon talvi (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1975)
  • Dora at Follyfoot, 1972
    - Varsanjalan Dora (suom. Maini Palosuo, 1973)
  • Follyfoot Farm, 1973 (containing Follyfoot and Dora at Follyfoot)
  • Talking of Horses, 1973
  • Spring Comes to World's End, 1973
  • Last Year When I Was Young, 1974
  • The Horses of Follyfoot, 1975
    - Varsanjalan hevoset (suom. Pirkko Talvio, 1976)
  • Stranger at Follyfoot, 1976
    - Varsanjalka vaarassa (suom. Pirkko Talvio-Jaatinen, 1978)
  • An Open Book, 1978
  • A Celebration, 1984
  • The Ballad of Favour, 1985
  • The Messenger, 1985
  • A View From The Seesaw, 1986
  • Cry of a Seagull, 1986
  •  The Haunting of Bellamy 4, 1986
  • Dear Doctor Lily, 1988
  • Enchantment, 1989
  • Closed at Dusk, 1990
  • Scarred, 1991
  • One of the Family, 1993
  •  Befriending: The American Samaritans, 1996 (edited by Carlton Jackson)

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