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.
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.