The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

 

 

Today is the birthday of Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles, and next in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors collated by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock.  This will be the third lady author that I’ve appreciated thanks to Jane, but unlike the previous two, I had heard of Monica Dickens beforehand.  That said, I knew her as the author of the children’s Follyfoot stories; I had no experience of her writing for adults.

Monica Dickens had her first book published in 1939 and her last was published posthumously in 1992: a career spanning more than half a century.  She certainly deserves to be celebrated!

I was tempted by Mariana, the second of her books to be published and allegedly her best known, but I finally settled on The Winds of Heaven which was published in 1955 and republished in 2010 by Persephone.

Dickens endpaper
1950s furnishing fabric: endpapers in the Persephone edition

Louise is not yet sixty years old.  Her husband died less than two years earlier, after a long marriage which has left her with little confidence and even less money.  Dudley had been a controlling, belittling and secretive husband.  His treatment of Louise might now be termed as emotional abuse.

She had borne three daughters, to her surprise, for her husband had set his heart on a son, and Louise was in the habit of giving him everything he asked for. That she failed to give him a boy, with a long conceited nose like his own to look down on the world, had not helped to raise his opinion of his wife’s usefulness to society.

With Dudley’s death, Louise is finally free of his control but thanks to his lack of regard for her future welfare, she is instead forced to rely on the goodwill of their three daughters.  She has almost no money and no home of her own.  In many ways her future mirrors her past, for she still has no freedom to make her own choices.  Once again, her life is mapped out for her: she is shunted between daughters, each unwillingly taking their turn to do their duty and provide her with a roof and a bed for a few months before passing her on.

“For you, Mother?” he asked, and Louise said: “Oh, I don’t know that I -“

“One of these days,” he murmured to Miriam, when Louise had gone through the door before them to the dining room, “your mother won’t get a drink, unless she learns to say: ‘I’d love one.  Just what I want.'”

“How can she?” Miriam said.  “She feels it’s charity.”

“My foot,” said Arthur.  “People who have got nothing can’t be so proud.”

I’m making the book sound dismal and dispiriting.  It is a long way from either.  Monica Dickens writes with a deft touch and a keen eye; with a liberal sprinkling of humour as well as pathos. Her writing is seamlessly crafted; she is effortless to read.

The opening chapter of the book is a delight.  Louise is killing time – she has to do a lot of that in her new life.   Sheltering in Lyons Tea House, she sits opposite “a fat, elderly man in clothes slightly frayed at points of friction”.  He is reading a paperback thriller entitled ‘The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini’ with a suitably lurid cover, and Louise, attempting to flick the ash from her cigarette in the manner she believes appropriate to busy people in London, instead spills her tea on the book.  Thus begins her acquaintance with bed salesman Gordon Disher – who, when he is not selling beds, writes dubious thrillers along with other “anonymous scribblers”, which are published under the eponymous name of Lester Drage.  We learn a great deal about Louise through this exchange, and the stage is set for the gentlest and most unlikely of romances!

That said, this is far from a romantic novel.  Much of the time Gordon Disher doesn’t feature.  We follow Louise through the long months at each of her daughters’ homes, and if I have a criticism of the book it would be that some of these sections felt too slow.  The pace and lightness of the book were at risk of being lost to the daughters’ stories, each of whom was very disagreeable.  I suspect it was the repellent natures of the daughters which caused my interest to flag slightly – coupled with my frustration at their shabby treatment of their mother.

But then Louise is packaged up and sent off to pass her second winter on the Isle of Wight, where she receives cut-price rates at the hotel of her old school friend, Sybil: an outrageous, larger-than-life character with a hotel that would give Fawlty Towers a good run for its money.  The characters and goings on at the hotel are chaotically comic.  Against this background Louise tries gamely to make the best of her situation whilst quietly not giving way to despair and hopelessness.   She can’t bear the thought of her life as the perennial unwanted guest and yet she can’t begin to see how it can ever be anything different.

Louise’s days at Driffield Court dawdled by, but there were too many of them and they crawled too slowly.  The winter stretched before her in meaningless eternity, broken only by the prospect of Christmas at Miriam’s.  She tried to fill her days with reading, walking, writing letters, but it was hard to find any purpose to life beyond appearing punctually at meals, and helping to keep her room tidy to help the raw young maid.

Christmas comes and goes.  And without warning, Louise’s life takes a completely different tack.  She is suddenly required to leave the hotel under unforeseen and dramatic circumstances.

Dickens endpaper

For most of the book Louise might be seen as weak and sadly pathetic, but I found her immensely likeable and given the circumstances, totally believable.  She is wonderfully warm and brimming with natural charm and friendliness despite her disapproving and disparaging family and their various social prejudices.   Her attempts to ‘fit in’ and to be useful often result in disastrous or hilarious consequences, such as when she goes into the hotel kitchen to help the pressured staff and throws everyone into confusion.

None of her daughters are pleasant.  Snooty Miriam, self-centred Eva and sullen Anne are as different from each other as they are from their mother.  It’s hard to imagine such a disparate bunch within the same family until I think of the obnoxious, deceased father: Dudley.  I can imagine how his treatment of his wife will have left its mark on how the daughters perceive their mother and in turn, go on to treat her themselves.  I had great sympathy for Louise and for her gawky granddaughter, Ellen, with whom she has a special bond and who has a story of her own woven in with her grandmother’s.

I’m unsure about the climax of the book. I wonder if the same conclusion might have been reached through less dramatic means.  On the other hand, I found plenty to infer from events as they were written – and some satisfaction in the suggestion that the daughters had been suitably chastened and jolted out of their righteous martyrdom.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I wish there was a sequel.  I’d love to know more of Louise’s life and especially that of her granddaughter.  If it is representative of Dickens’ work, I have many hours of pleasure ahead of me.

Dickens endpaper

During her career, Monica Dickens was an extremely popular author.  Elizabeth Bowen and others praised her for “kindly humour, for her sense of comedy, for her affection for people, notwithstanding her debunking of suburban pretensions”.  In many respects The Winds of Heaven is a comic novel; it certainly made me smile often and it is the lightness of touch that stays with me now.  But there is no doubt that the book has shades of darkness at play within its pages.  There are some dark themes within it.  In her insightful afterward, A S Bryant suggests that being classified as a ‘best-seller’ prevented serious discussion of Dickens’ work.  Is that perhaps why she is so underappreciated today?

Having finished the book and gone on to learn more about Monica, I can now see that through the daughters’ stories and those of other women later in the book, she presents a wide range of female views and experiences.  As with all the themes explored, there are social observations but nothing didactic.  I enjoyed the book without looking too closely for an agenda and I don’t believe there is an overt agenda.  The novel is great fun and at the same time winsome and wistful.  It is a matter of choice to consider further the darker themes it holds within its pages.

Monica was born into privilege.  She made her name on the back of her early, light-hearted, semi-autobiographical novels.  But she was a lot more than these facts suggest.  She had a social awareness which extended beyond the light references in her books.  She was a devoted animal lover and also a humanitarian.  She became a Samaritan and was heavily involved in setting up branches of the charity when she moved with her husband to America.  Her obituary in The Independent ends:

“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.”

Dickens endpaper

My aim is to entertain rather than instruct,’ she wrote.  ‘I want readers to recognise life in my books.’

In The Winds of Heaven, she certainly succeeds.

34 thoughts on “The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens”

  1. Thanks, I need to revisit Monica Dickens. I read her early books, One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea when I wa a teenager, books that my mother and I could both enjoy and I seem to remember we thought they were hilarious.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I understand they are all semi-autobiographical and I would love to read them. I’m guessing that they will shed some light on her development as a writer and also as an observer and on how her social conscience evolved. But all with her trademark light touch I think!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s fascinating Sandra. I’ve never registered her before as a writer of adult novels- I only remember her for the ” World’s end” series. The “Follyfoot ” novels never appealed to me .
    Did I ever realise that she was a descendent of Charles Dickens? I think not.
    What treasures pass us by in a world of literary riches!

    xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Don’t they just, Pat! But perhaps that’s what makes them treasures when we finally uncover them. (I adored Follyfoot. The theme tune to the tv series is playing in my head right now! 😉 ) xx

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  3. I’m the opposite, Sandra – I didn’t know her as an author of children’s books, but found One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea in my local library when I was a teenager. I thought they were marvellous. Now, I’ll look out for The Winds of Heaven and Mariana.

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    1. I must read that early trio, Margaret; they sound such fun and put me in mind of the Provincial Lady (which I’ll be reading very soon as Delafield is also on Jane’s list). I’m also keen to read Mariana though for reasons I can’t explain I’m wary of it at the moment. Maybe because I imagine it to be a very different book to The Winds of Heaven and I’m not in any hurry to let that one go just yet 🙂 If you do read it, I’ll be very interested in your thoughts.

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  4. I think you captured this book, and its characters, perfectly. I agree with you about the ending…I’m still not sure it fits with the rest of the book, but maybe it keeps things from being too wistful? I’m glad though that you enjoyed it, and Greenbanks, as much as I did!

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  5. I had intended to read this for Jane’s Birthday Book too, but didn’t get round to starting it in time. I will still read it, especially after hearing how much you enjoyed it. It does sound interesting and will be my first Monica Dickens book, so I’m hoping I’ll like it as much as you did.

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  6. I read some of her books decades ago but read this one fairly recently for the first time. I enjoyed it too and I must get around to the others of hers I have as yet unread.

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  7. I loved One Pair of Hands and enjoyed One Pair of Feet, but haven’t read any of her novels. Gotta be honest, this one sounds… dismal! I tried hard to think of a more euphemistic word for it, but failed, so there it is… I’ve said it! 😉

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    1. Ha ha!! I did my best to suggest that it’s anything but, and clearly I failed! 😉 I suspect I might have stood a better chance of winning you over had I selected different quotes 🙂 There again – Gordon Disher is NOT Mr Darcy. So on reflection, I never stood a chance 😀 😆

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    1. Most of these writers are British authors from the first half of the last century, Elizabeth. I imagine there are many more in the equivalent American category which are completely new to me too!

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  8. What a great review of a book and author I knew nothing about. We hear very little of writers from the UK here and I find that I miss a lot of understanding . Styles of writing are so different for two English speaking countries. At least that’s how I see it. We live an insular life here in the states and I should branch out more. I find it hard to read books or watch movies about women being treated badly. Very interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marlene, she is treated badly and yet not in the overt and possibly violent way that we hear about in the media. I think the book highlights the lot of a certain group of women in the first half of the last century. They may have got the vote and had financially secure lives throughout their marriages and thus appeared as comfortable and privileged. (Which of course, they were compared to many.) But they still had so little control over their lives. Louise (in the story) was belittled by her husband while he was alive and left with nothing when he died. Of course, she did choose to marry him in the first place! Anyway, overall the novel is uplifting, with a happy ending. And it’s very gentle. I am increasingly a fan of gentle, ‘quiet’ novels!

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  9. This sounds like a marvellous read. I am a trifle behind with my reading at the moment, so my library copies of Mariana and Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph are still in my pile by the bed. But I guess you don’t mind too much if the actual anniversary is missed – the point is to highlight these talented authors, is it not? And bravo for doing so, otherwise I would be missing out on such treasures! 🙂

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    1. Lol – I’m catching up on a whole load of blog posts and completely missed the fact that the ‘under appreciated authors’ project is actually being run by the lovely Jane over at BeyondEdenRock!! I hope she would nevertheless agree with my comments, and in the meantime, I still love your review! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 😀 I wish I could take the credit for this lovely project, Liz, but yes – it must all go to Jane. I’m discovering such a lot from it. Next month is the turn of E M Delafield – the Provincial Lady herself and finally an author I’ve not only heard of but actually read before! (That said I haven’t read Diary of a P L so I know I’ll be choosing it for the birthday read.) Do let me know your thoughts on Mariana when you get to it. I so nearly opted for that one and I’m sure I’ll read it one day *sigh*

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Don’t we just have such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to marvellous books to read! I will probably opt for the Diary too for the Delafield birthday – I have not read any of her books before, but of course have heard of her, unlike many of Jane’s other picks. Will get back to you re Mariana soon…! 🙂

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  10. I’ve never read anything by Monica Dickens, but now I think I’d like to. Is this the book you had just finished when I was reading The Trick to Time? I sense similarities in the relationships between the men and women.

    I love the 1950s fabric, by the way!

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