Chicken soup for the brain

I guess that all readers have certain books that are comfort reads - these aren't quite the same as favourite books. The comfort reads are those that are essential in times of stress or illness, or just when you need a bit of a pick-me-up. A friend of mine always turned to Jane Austen when in distress. For me it's Monica Dickens' One pair of hands, A year in Provence by Peter Mayle or Iain Pears' art history/mystery series. All books where not too much thinking is required, and they can just wash nicely over you. Of course some of these books happen to be favourite books too, and are just the thing when a lot of your recent reading has been rather doom-laden. Hence I turned to One pair of hands.

Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles, and was brought up in a well-to-do upper-middle-class British family. An ex-debutante, she spent her early twenties wondering what to do with her life, and decided to become a cook. One pair of hands, her debut as a writer, follows her through her eighteen months of domestic service. It's a very funny book, part of the humour coming from the culture clash of someone who would normally be on the "upstairs" part of the baize door being instead on the "downstairs" side. Most of her time as a cook was spent working as a "daily" (living at home, but coming in when needed), but some of the funniest sections are set in a country house, where Monica lived for several months - there are some great character studies - the neurotic housekeeper, the dastardly butler (who blackmails on the side), and the flighty maid who hankers for the bright lights of Torquay.

Re-reading the novel it struck me how much women's lives had changed in the course of a century. I must have first read One pair of hands as a teenager, sometime in the 1980's. Reading it then, it struck me as a funny book, but the content was not that far removed from the lives of people I knew - I knew people who had been in service in the 1930's, the domestic appliances that Monica had dealt with were things that I could remember dimly from my own childhood. Re-reading it now, it was like reading an historical novel - it seems so remote from the life that we live today. And some of the class attitudes and cliches also seem less relevant and less true than they did 30 years ago, which is, I think, a good thing. Its good humour though still stands out, and it still makes me laugh. Not a great intellectual work, but for me it truly is chicken-soup for the brain.


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