Obituary: Monica Dickens
Thursday 31 December 1992
Monica Dickens was one of the two or three best-selling woman's novelists of her generation.
A great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, she was the daughter of Henry Dickens, barrister-at-law, and Fanny Runge. She was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, but was expelled after throwing her school uniform over Hammersmith Bridge. She joined a drama school before being presented at Court in 1935.
With no career training, she took jobs as cook-general in a variety of houses. Then at a chance meeting with a young publisher in 1937 she was encouraged to write a book about her experiences below stairs. Within six weeks she completed her first book, One Pair of Hands, which has never been out of print since publication in 1939. Compton Mackenzie recognised her talent and wrote a foreword, and the book was widely reviewed - Malcolm Muggeridge among others praised it highly.
Her first novel, Mariana, followed in 1940, and then in 1942, after she had taken up hospital nursing as her war work, One Pair of Feet, based on her experiences at the hospital in Windsor. Before this was published, Dickens moved to a factory as a fitter making spare parts for Spitfires. Her novels The Fancy (1943) and Thursday Afternoons (1945) increased her reputation.
Praise came with every book: JB Priestley wrote 'Monica Dickens gets better and better', Rebecca West said 'It is life itself that is caught up in the pages of her books' and later, in a long article on her works, AS Byatt argued that she was much underestimated. John Betjeman declared that she was a novelist 'who has all the airs and graces a reader could wish for'.
Monica Dickens's novels appeared regularly and included The Happy Prisoner (1946: a Book Society Choice), Joy and Josephine (1948) and Flowers on the Grass (1949).
In 1951 she married Commander Roy Stratton, US Navy, and went to live in Washington, before settling in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, until Roy's death in 1985. Monica created a wonderful family life with two adopted daughters, Prudence and Pamela. Her house always seemed to be full of guests. She was very close to her parents and her sister, Doady, and they all came to stay regularly.
For 20 years Monica Dickens wrote a weekly column in Woman's Own and this brought her in touch with a large readership. Her articles were noted for their originality and her common-sense approach earned the respect of her readers. She read widely and during the 1940s she regularly reviewed fiction for the Sunday Chronicle. She loved the ballet and was friends with many dancers.
Her books continued with My Turn To Make the Tea (1951), based on her experiences as a junior reporter on a local newspaper, No More Meadows (1953), The Winds of Heaven (1955), The Angel in the Corner (1956), Man Overboard (1958), The Heart of London (1961), Cobbler's Dream (1963; bought by Yorkshire Television, resulting in a 30-part serial, Follyfoot), Kate and Emma (1964) - arguably her most accomplished novel - and The Room Upstairs (1966). Her popular success was explained not so much by her skills as a story-teller as by her ability to sketch characters that were convincing and immediately recognisable to the reader, and showed her humour and deep understanding of human behaviour.
Monica Dickens felt the challenge to write for children. This interest resulted in The House at World's End, Summer at World's End, World's End in Winter and Spring Comes to World's End (1970-73). She also wrote three novels based on the Follyfoot films, all of then immensely successful. In 1978 her autobiography, An Open Book, was published.
Other works were Last Year When I Was Young (1974) and four more books for children - The Messenger (1985), The Ballad of Favour (1985), Miracles of Courage (1985) and The Haunting of Bellamy 4 (1986). Her last novels were Dear Doctor Lily (1988), Enchantment (1989), Closed at Dusk (1990) and Scarred (1991). Her final novel, One of the Family, will be published next spring.
Her humour and her keen sense of observation, together with her understanding of other people's problems, led her eventually to become a Samaritan. She had a close friendship with an admiration for the Samaritans' founder, Dr Chad Varah. Her commitment to them led her to open a branch in Boston in 1974 and after considerable local opposition she persisted to make the Samaritans a thriving organisation throughout the United States. Her novel The Listeners (1970) was based on her knowledge of the Samaritans.
Monica Dickens loved riding and she kept horses until she came back to a small cottage in Berkshire, but she always had cats and dogs around her. Her many acts of loyalty and kindness will remain unrecorded, but there are many who were helped by Monica through difficult times of their lives.
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