Next month we will publish Monica Dickens’ wartime memoir, One Pair of Feet. Early copies have just come in and I thought you might like a taster to whet your appetite.
First published in 1942, One Pair of Feet comically recounts the trials and tribulations of a wartime nurse. Monica Dickens was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, and, disillusioned with the privileged world she grew up in, decided to go into service. Finding that the life of a cook and servant didn’t suit her, she applied to train as a nurse, and her account is funny, warm and brilliantly brings to life the trials and tribulations of life on the wards. Here is a short extract from the opening of the book:
One had got to be something; that was obvious. But what? It seemed that women, having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once . The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming. Men’s jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hot cakes in Kensington High Street. . . I could not make up my mind what to be. A lot of fanatics rushed into the most uncongenial jobs they could find, stimulated by a glow of self-sacrifice that lasted until the novelty wore off or the cold weather set in, but it seemed to me that, provided that it was just as useful, it was no less patriotic to do something enjoyable . . . The Services? I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings . . . The Land Army? One saw oneself picking apples in a shady hat, or silhouetted against the skyline with a couple of plough horses, but a second look showed one tugging mangel-wurzels out of the frozen ground at five o’clock on a bitter February morning. Ministries and Bureaux? Apart from the question of my hips again (sitting is so spreading), they didn’t seem to want me. Perhaps it was because I can only type with three fingers . . . Nursing? The idea had always attracted me, even in peace-time, but I suppose every girl goes through that. It’s one of those adolescent phases, like wanting to be a nun. It was reading Farewell to Arms, I think, that finally decided me, though what sort of hospital allowed such goings on, I can’t imagine. However, that was the last war. Then I saw Madeleine Carroll in Vigil in the Night, and that settled it. I was going to be a nurse in a pure white halo cap, and glide swiftly about with oxygen cylinders and, if necessary, give my life for a patient and have my name on a bronze plaque in the hospital corridor . . . Miss Sarah P. Churchman (Matron) had asked me for references, so I dictated one or two to friends with solid-looking surnames, saying how reliable and intelligent I was, with a gentle sympathy of manner that would make Florence Nightingale look like an S. S. Guard at Dachau.