Tag Archives: Monica Dickens

Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens 

Occasionally, when I am not sure what to read next, I pick something from the books I inherited from my mother. Her collection included Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens. I was confident that I would enjoy it as I had previously read Winds of Heaven (1955) about a widow finds herself lost in post-war Britain. I featured it in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Thursday Afternoons is an earlier novel, published in 1945. Monica Dickens had served as a nurse, an experience she drew on for her popular novel-memoir One Pair of Feet, published in 1942, featuring her training during the Second World War. This novel returns to the setting of hospitals, before the NHS, and the world of doctors, nurses and patients.

Thursday Afternoons

The title of Thursday Afternoons suggests routine, the things that happen every Thursday afternoon. The reader is introduced to Dr Stephen Sheppard and here he is one Thursday afternoon running his clinic in suburban Dynsford for no pay as he has a lucrative private practice in London’s Wimpole Street. Nurse Lake is assisting him, organising the patients in the waiting area, sorting their files, and ensuring that everything goes smoothly. Routine. Settled ways of doing things. A writer introduces these in order to provide some disruption.

The disruption builds up from the start of the novel. It is the late spring of !939. It begins with patients who will insist on handing the doctor their out patient Registration Card. He only needs their file. But they persist. There is worse coming than upsetting the routines of Dr Sheppard’s clinic. As the novel progresses the likelihood of war increases. Trenches are being dug in London parks, people are deciding which of the armed services to join, to remove their families out of London, and women are exploring the possibilities of war work. 

Everyone likes Dr Sheppard, especially Nurse Lake. The patients hang on his words, the nursing staff are in awe of him, the ward sisters and Matron want to entertain him for tea and biscuits. His colleagues respect him. His wife defers to his every decision. His friends can’t get enough time in his company. Dr Sheppard lives the life of an entitled and privileged man.

No-one is quite so pleased with Dr Stephen Sheppard as Dr Sheppard. The reader sees him enjoying all his privileges. His wife Ruth is a tedious woman with little flair. We notice that Dr Sheppard has recently been unfaithful to his wife. We learn that they had a daughter who was drowned, and it emerges that Stephen was sleeping on the beach at the time. 

He is bored by his life, drinks, smokes and eats a great deal and takes it for granted that he will be successful at whatever he turns his hands to. One of his projects is to write a novel, and he pursues the secretary of a publisher, one of his patients who owes him money. We learn that he has no skills as a writer, but he assumes that he has. 

He decides to join the navy taking it for granted that the service will welcome a man of his talents and successes. The recruiters see him as out of touch and ill-prepared for the demands of medicine in war. This not very nice doctor sails through London in his nice car, imagining that life still has much to offer him. Actually, life has other plans for him and for everyone as war approaches. Hubris is a word to associate with him.

One theme of this novel is the hierarchies of the health service before the war: public/private; male/female; medical/nursing/patients; entitlement/charity and so forth. The hardship of the lives of trainee nurses are exposed, they are bound by petty rules, extreme long hours, hard work and humiliating exams. Dr Sheppard, of course, sails above this. Nurse Lake experiences it every day. And Monica Dickens knew what she was writing about.

It was good to be reminded of the history of the hierarchies that still exist today, and of the inability of people to control their destinies. 

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in the States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published four books before Thursday Afternoons. She published many, many more in her life, including the Follyfoot series for children.

Thursday Afternoons by Monica Dickens, first published in 1945 by Penguin Books 320pp

Related post

The Winds of Heaven (1951) by Monica Dickens in the Older Women in Fiction Series (June 2018). 

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The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

What life was there for older women, especially an older widow, in post-war England? Despite all the changes of the previous half-century and two world wars that had required women to take on more active roles outside their traditional sphere of the home, in 1951 there was no role for older women. For widows of a certain class, anyway, such as Louise.

The Winds of Heaven is the 33rdin the series on older women in fiction. You can find a list of all those previous posts and readers’ recommendations on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

Louise in The Winds of Heaven

At the start of the novel Louise, who is about 60, has been widowed for a year or so. Her husband was a bully and put her down at every opportunity. He left her with nothing except debts and a sense of shame.

Louise has no reason to live anywhere in particular and no resources to make choices. She has three daughters and a school friend and they accommodate her in dreary rotation. Winters are spent on the Isle of Wight in Sybil’s out of season hotel. When the summer visitors arrive Louise begins another sequence of visits to her three daughters.

The daughters are all preoccupied with themselves and the difficulties they have created. Louise has three relationships that are respectful. Her oldest grandchild, Ellen (11), needs more indulgent adults in her life and she forms a strong bond with her grandmother. Her son-in-law Frank treats her with respect and is thoughtful about her situation. And Louise meets Gordon Disher in a Lyons teashop in the opening scene. She spills her tea on the lurid paperback he is reading: The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. It turns out that he is the author, and that like her he leads a lonely life, in his case selling beds in an Oxford Street department store.

When her winter sojourn at her friend’s Isle of Wight hotel comes to an abrupt end Louise has no one to turn to, and nowhere to stay. The final crisis and resolution follow quickly.

Feminism in The Winds of Heaven?

When the winds of Heaven blow, men are inclined to throw back their heads like horses, and stride ruggedly into gusts, pretending to be much healthier than they really are, but women tend to creep about, shrunk into their clothes, and clutching at their hats and hair. (1)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel, intended to be taken literally but the image of creeping about in the face of buffeting is apt for Louise. The wind is a recurring image in the novel. Louise certainly creeps about, not rugged but shrunk into her unsatisfactory life. With no resources she feels unable to find a way out of her situation.

Louise produces some very strong reactions among recent reviewers:

The Captive Reader found her pathetic and was disappointed in the novel.

A Corner of Cornwall saw the validity of this view but also found Louise likeable.

She Reads Novels was more enthusiastic.

But Booksnob found that Louise spoiled her reading of the novel, despite Monica Dickens’s humour, warmth and observations, because she wanted the author to suggest Louise could do with some courage and ingenuity and a be given a kick up the backside.

My own view is that Louise is very much of her age (I mean the 1950s) and class and furthermore has been subjected to abusive behaviour by her husband, neglect by her daughters and disdain by society as a whole. Her efforts at courage and ingenuity are usually failures. She is very sympathetically drawn. But I would not condone her level of passivity in older women today.

That Louise is pathetic, lacks agency and is far too obliging is a condemnation of the time she lived in and its attitudes to older women. It was not easy find a role as a widow in the 1950s, especially without financial means. Is it any easier today?

Everything in Louise’s life has conspired to make her rather timid and grateful for anything. Her husband treated her badly, undermining her at every opportunity.

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 raise his opinion of his wife’s helpfulness to society. (1-2)

In her widowhood she continues to try to do right for others, but it often goes wrong. An ill-judged remark, an inappropriate gift, helpful actions that turn out to undermine the settled order of things; such moments reinforce her sense of being unwanted and outside society.

Despite revealing Louise’s terrible fate as an older woman Monica Dickens gave her a romantic and happy-ever-after ending.

Other widows in fiction have faced similar difficulties: Louise makes reference to ‘those dismal ‘residentials’, where they farm out most widows’ (209). I think immediately of Elizabeth Taylor’s wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont in which Mrs Palfrey makes a good go of living in such a place. And Lady Shane in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West simply ignores her children’s decisions for her when she is widowed and choses her own rather surprising path.

Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens (1915-1992) famously said that her aim in writing was ‘to entertain rather than instruct’ and hoped that readers would ‘recognise life in my books’. She was a rebel. Expelled from school, brought out as a debutante, she rejected the life mapped out for her and decided to go into service, and then into nursing. She used these experiences in One Pair of Hands (1939) and One Pair of Feet (1942). After the war she married an American and lived for much of her adult life in The States. Her great-grandfather was Charles Dickens. She was a writer all her life and had already published 10 books before The Winds of Heaven in 1955.

She is on the list of authors identified by Jane (beyondedenrock blog}: A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Her birthday was 10thMay. Thanks to Grier for recommending this novel for the series.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, first published in 1955. Republished by Persephone Books in 2010. 320pp

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