One day, a decade or so ago, I discovered a scruffy paperback of Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London at Half Price Books. I was heartened by the discovery, because I’d had trouble finding a simpatico used bookstore, and this chain store stocked Mrs. Oliphant and other interesting middlebrow English novels (they disappeared when the store relocated). The eccentric owner of the other used bookstore had whimsically refused to sell me Abdel Rahman Munif’s The Trench, the second book in the Cities of Salt trilogy.
“You won’t like it.” “No, I will like it.” “The first one is charming; this one isn’t.” “No, it wasn’t charming, and I do want this book.” Was it because I was black? (No, I’m white.) Was it because I was a woman? (Well, I am a woman.) “Is he allowed not to sell you something in the store?” a friend asked. He went out of business, which is a pity, because he had a good collection.
But my flight to the chain was indirectly responsible for my discovering Monica Dickens (1915-1992), so it was a good thing. Monica was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter and the author of many brilliant, entertaining, touching novels and memoirs, among them Mariana (Persephone) and The Winds of Heaven (Persephone). Her memoir, One Pair of Hands, is a comic masterpiece about her experiences as a cook-general after she was kicked out of drama school. Most of her books have been reissued as paperbacks and e-books by Bloomsbury Reader.
Recently I read her 1950 novel, Flowers on the Grass, in a battered red hardback, which says on the title page (and I’m not sure if it’s a stamp or printed):
THE BOOK CLUB
121 CHARING CROSS ROAD
Does anyone know about this Book Club?
I absolutely love this novel. Dickens’s prose is witty, her characters vivid, the plot is deftly drawn, and I was moved by the events of the story. Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of Daniel, a charming, restless, capricious artist who never stays in one place long. In eleven chapters we meet a landlady, a maid, a manipulative man with epilepsy, an unhappy student at a progressive school, nurses, and others. The bold Daniel, even when drunk, swearing, or obnoxious, has a good sense of humor. And, yes, he has an interesting, if not always positive, effect on the other characters.
The first chapter, “Jane,” sets the tone and the chain of events in motion. Jane, Daniel’s wife, pregnant with their first child, has persuaded Daniel to settle down in a cottage in the country near London. She has known Daniel since childhood–they are cousins–but he has had an itinerant, unstable life, expelled from Eton, exiled to the home of a great-aunt in Capri, and then going from one job to another in England. During the war, he was a prisoner, and afterwards Jane soothes him and persuades him to marry her. But they drift around London at first.
Dickens describes Daniel’s peripatetic tendencies with compassion and perception.
In the self-contained university which grew up in the camp Daniel had discovered that he was a better teacher than he would ever be an artist. Long ago in Naples he had suspected that he would never paint or design well enough to make a living, or even to please himself. He admitted this now and found a job teaching architectural drawing and lecturing on Italian art at a technical college in Chelsea. He and Jane lived up and down the King’s Road, hopping from room to horrid room, into a leaky flat and out again, like birds not knowing where to build their nest.
Jane unobtrusively stabilizes Daniel after she inherits enough money to buy the cottage. And he is very happy with the garden. But a tragedy occurs: Jane is electrocuted by an electric kettle. (A similar horrifying electrocution via a refrigerator happens to the character Stephanie in A. S. Byatt’s Still Life. And, come to think of it, Stephanie’s husband is named Daniel, too.) The loss of Jane sends Daniel drifting from place to place and job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he drinks and womanizes.
In the chapter called “Ossie,” a librarian named Ossie is concerned about the effect of Jane’s death on Daniel. Daniel seems reckless, indifferent, and never talks about it; he lives in a dirty boarding house. Ossie, who was a buffoon both at school and Oxford and now collects bad jokes, suddenly organizes himself to move to the cottage to look after Daniel, but falls in loves with the countryside, finds a girlfriend, and a new lease on life. He learns he doesn’t have to play the buffoon. But nothing lasts forever. Daniel decides to move on, and Ossie, too, must start a new life.
In “Doris,” the maid at a small hotel, Doris, finds Daniel charming, if eccentric, and helps him keep a dog illicitly in his room. She also smuggles out his liquor bottles and undresses him when he passes out. It’s only a matter of time till the hotel owner finds out. Always a friend of the underdog, he helps Doris get her job back.
In “Valerie,” Daniel is working for an advertising firm. He enjoys the company of his sexy landlady, Valerie, a widow who humorously poses for his drawings for roles required by the products like laxatives and pep pills: the sketches have titles like the wife of The Man Who Lost His Job. But Daniel resents her domesticity, especially her friendship with the repulsive, obsequious lodger, Mr. Piggott, because he wants all the attention himself.. There is a point where they talk of marriage, but somehow Valerie cannot.
I very much enjoyed this book. Monica is such a skillful writer, somehow interspersing charm and humor with the real sorrow many of these characters experience.
And, just so you’ll know: Two of Monica Dickens’ novels are free at the Internet Archive, The Winds of Heaven (which I wrote about at my blog in 2014) and The Nightingales Are Singing.