Saturday, December 3, 2011

One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

I, rather shamefully, admittedly have not read The Help, mostly because I tend to shy away from the bestseller lists. Instead, I went and read One Pair of Hands, the only similarity being that they are about domestic help (I think).

The premise of One Pair of Hands is interesting, to say the least. It's like a reverse-Cinderella story, only this time, Cinderella chooses to go and slave away. Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens and a debutante, chooses to work as a domestic, simply because she is bored. Through the course of this memoir, she is mainly a cook-general, that is, she does everything + cook.

The writing is witty, and it's entertaining to see how she progresses from a thoroughly incompetent domestic help to a more competent domestic help. Through the course of the novel, she works for many houses (and she freely admits that she seems to attract the worst employers maybe because of her ineptness), and each distinctive house presents its own set of challenges.

The ending, which I will try not to give away, is satisfying, although I would wish for a slightly more disney-esque ending. But that would veer into fiction.

But it is interesting, how she managed to bear all the strains of being a domestic helper, and still continued in that job willingly (looking for other families). In Singapore today, most Singaporeans (including me) are spoilt and expect a maid (to be polite, I will say domestic help). Once the domain of the rich, now the every-man feels entitled for an indentured servant. And people wonder why I'm so cynical about our society.

But back to topic. Living with Josie Jie Jie and Emma Jie Jie (Josie Jie Jie having worked for my family far longer than I have lived) is basically a lesson in how to treat those who work for you. For one thing, she used to be able to discipline me. And another, now that it's not such a viable tool, talking to me works just as well. And basically, this is what I learnt:

THEY ARE HUMAN TOO. Get this into your head. Just because they live under your roof and eat your food doesn't mean you can be unfair. They are the ones who are slaving away, far from their families for your ungrateful brats (trust me, I've been there, done that, and I'm ashamed of it. And I'm definitely not the worse). While there are some truly evil/lazy maids around, I think the majority are good, if you treat them right. Of course, because this is live-in, things are complicated so much more, so clear boundaries/schedules are always welcome.

Before this becomes a discourse on how to treat your employee (which I am unsuited for), let me just end by recommending you a book from my Church library. It's called I Am a Filipino Maid by Geok Loo Bee and it's the best way (best book anyway) to walk a mile in their shoes.


  1. It is interesting that this book has recently been republished having first been published in 1939, perhaps because of the current popularity of Downtown Abbey and the fascination with Upstairs Downstairs life. Monica Dickens wrote this book aged only 22, already a lively and interesting writer with a subtle sense of humor. For women who now work outside the home as well as cook and do their own housework today the chapters devoted to Monica’s stories of working as a full time cook general in quite small households are amazing, perhaps less so when she mentions the all- prevailing grime and soot of pre war London.

    1. Oh wow, I didn't know that! Thanks for sharing more about the book's background.

      This makes the book more remarkable than what I first thought.



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