Yours Sincerely – Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

When my e-friend Sarah mentioned that Monica Dickens and Beverley Nichols had co-authored a selection of light essays called Yours Sincerely (1949), can you really imagine me not immediately buying a copy?  If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re either new around these parts, or you have a stronger sense of my self-control than is just.

So, back in autumn, it arrived – and I started reading it in a gradual way, such as befits this sort of book.  It is great fun.  I don’t know quite where the articles came from – they’re quite varying lengths, and don’t seem to have been written specially for this volume, but cover topics in the same line as Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures.   Everything from ‘Planting Bulbs’ (reminiscent of Provincial Lady, no?) to ‘Sensuality’; ‘Talkative Women’ to ‘Coddled Men’; ‘Losing Your Temper’ to ‘Brides in White.’  All the sort of topics of middle-class chatter in the 1940s – but feeling, somehow, old-fashioned even for the 1940s.

Indeed, Beverley Nichols has no qualms in describing himself as ‘old-fashioned, out-of-date, and generally encrusted in lichen’.  Even when I agree with him, he’s so curmudgeonly that I felt like I wanted to distance myself from him…  it’s enjoyable to read, but not quite the laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating whimsy that I’d expected – and which Monica Dickens delivers in spades.  Sometimes he was just too saccharine and worthy for my taste…

You can’t bruise a plant and feel aggrieved because it grows up stunted or deformed or “odd.”  The slightest twist or wound, in it infancy, grows and swells, till in the end the plant is an ugly wretched thing that you have to throw onto the rubbish heap.

It is the same with children.  A lie, an injustice, a cruelty – these get under the skin.  And they too grow and swell, till at last a miserable man or a wretched woman is rejected by society.
Undeniably true, but… am I bad person for wishing that he’d been jollier?  I still haven’t read any of his books, and now I’ll be rushing towards them a little less eagerly.

Whereas Monica Dickens, after getting all serious in The Winds of Heaven, is on fine form in Yours Sincerely.  Lots of smiles all round, and never too earnest.  Just the sort of light essay which I adore, and which doesn’t seem to happen any more.  Here she is on proposing…

We’ve all dreamed much the same dreams, I expect.  You know – you’re in a diaphanous evening dress of unearthly beauty.  You’re the belle of the ball.  You’ve danced like a disembodied fairy and now you drift out on to a moonlit terrace, mysterious with the scent of gardenias. 

He follows, in faultless evening dress, no doubt (mine sometimes used to be in white monkey jackets), and says – IT.

Or, he says IT on the boat-deck of a liner gliding through phosphorescent tropic seas, or on a Riviera beach, or sometimes at the crisis of some highly improbable adventure.  He’s just rescued you – or you him – from a fire.  You’re besieged in an attic firing your last round at the enemy now battering at the door below.  You’re a beautiful nurse and he’s a dying soldier – but not irretrievably dying.

There are endless variations but always the same theme song : “Will you marry me?”  The implication is that when one is very young the actual moment of proposal is one of the high-spots of marriage.

I used to pester my mother over and over again to tell me how my father proposed.  I couldn’t believe she wasn’t holding out on me when she swore that he never really had.  She couldn’t remember when he started saying and writing : “When we’re married we’ll do so and so.”
I have a small section of a shelf devoted to light essays – it is only a small section, because I haven’t managed to find very many.  Alongside this and some by Rose Macaulay are Angela Milne’s Jame and Genius, A.A. Milne’s various offerings in this genre, J.B. Priestley’s Delight, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Christopher Morley’s Safety Pins, and probably one or two others which have slipped my mind.  Any suggestions?

In the meantime, Yours Sincerely isn’t groundbreaking or even exceptionally good, but it’s a jolly, enjoyable contribution to that often-overlooked form of the familiar essay, and so steeped in the mores of the early 20th century that a flick through fills me with nostalgia for an age in which I never lived.

29 thoughts on “Yours Sincerely – Monica Dickens & Beverley Nichols

  • January 14, 2013 at 12:54 am

    There is a series of books of essays (early 20th century) by an English gentleman who calls himself "Alpha of the Plough" (His real name was E. V. Knox.) They're absolutely delightful! There are different editions, but the best ones are illustrated by C. E. Brock and Clive Gardiner, pub. J. M. Dent & Sons. I have four books: "Windfalls", "Pebbles on the Shore", "Leaves in the Wind" and "Many Furrows". Don't know if there are any others. Some of the essays are "On Reading in Bed", "On Talking to Oneself", "On Falling in Love". They've given me many hours of pleasure, and would be a great addition to any collection of light essays. I will certainly look into Yours Sincerely, as I love both Nichols and M. Dickens!

    • January 14, 2013 at 1:05 am

      Oo, this is the very best sort of recommendation, because I have one of his books on my shelf, waiting to be read! It's Leaves in the Wind, illustrated by Gardiner. I bought it in a charity shop in Dorchester on impulse – glad to hear that it was a good impulse! I also didn't realise that he was E.V. Knox – and now I'm trying to work out where I know that name from…

    • January 14, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Simon, he was Penelope Fitzgerald's father, one of the editors of Punch.

    • January 14, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Ah, I didn't know he was Firzgerald's father! What a very small world the world of literature is!

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Lyn – you have cleared up a lot of confusion for me in one short sentence. You've reminded me that PF wrote that book about Knox, but ALSO why I was so confused when doves talked about the book, as I *knew* I'd read his name somewhere else. AA Milne's biography being the answer, for his Punch work!

    • January 14, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      There you go! Trust a dove to clear up confusion. Have you read PF's biography of the Knox brothers? They were all fascinating men but it's a shame she didn't write more about her aunt, Winifred Peck, who wrote that lovely Persephone, House-Bound. WP seems to have been a very self-effacing woman but with all those brilliant brothers, she probably had little choice.

    • January 14, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      I haven't read the biog, nor (indeed) have I read House-Bound – but I do have the latter! And I have something else by Peck.. A Clearing Dawn? Something Dawn, anyway. What a talented family they were!

  • January 14, 2013 at 3:34 am

    When I started reading gardening books, Beverley Nichols was one of the first authors recommended to me. His books sounded like just my sort of thing but then I read Merry Hall and was surprised by how sour and mean-spirited he could be. I enjoyed the book but have not been eager to spend more time in his company. However, I am always happy to spend time with Monica Dickens!

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Oh dear! Maybe we'll be on the same page with BN. I wish I'd found that out before I accrued about eight books by him… but I'll give him a go soon, and make up my mind properly. Anybody would look lackluster next to Monica Dickens.

  • January 14, 2013 at 4:27 am

    Oh dear. I think I need this. I'm much more of a Monica Dickens fan than a Beverley Nichols one, but both are capable of consistently penning an amusingly turned phrase. A collection of light essays on varied subjects – lead me to it!
    I think I will be buying myself an early birthday present, if I can track it down. Over to ABE, my source of all good things used-bookish…

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Glad to hear it ;) It really is a dying genre, and we OWE it to these authors to… oh, I don't know, just buy it! ;)

  • January 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

    I've got a B.N. book that's signed by him somewhere in the house that I have never read (bad Liz, not on my TBR shelf) will have to check how MEAN that is then sell it if it is!!

    As for essay recommendations, I have a genre – essays category in my LibraryThing but I know I have more than 18 books of essays, so possibly check back on that in a week or so and I'll have made sure I've added all the rest!

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Oo, signed, lucky you!

      Thanks for the link – I went and looked. Some people are still doing it, but most modern essays seem to be quite worthy and political/philosophical – not so much the "My cat looked at me funny this morning" type that I so adore.

  • January 14, 2013 at 9:36 am

    I *love* what I've read so far of Beverley Nichols, and I'm hoping to get on to his book "Twenty Five" soon. I even picked one of his essays up at the weekend in a book on Conan Doyle! But I've found what I've read very funny and smart so far, so maybe his essays aren't up to his fiction….!

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm

      I'm encouraged that some people definitely do enjoy his books, and I'll certainly give him another try. I think it's my allergy to earnestness…

  • January 14, 2013 at 10:20 am

    Well I am new to Monica Dickens but since reading 'Mariana' I am a huge fan and am desperate to read pretty much everything that she has put out there. This looks good, but only really her bits, I am not sure therefore whether it would be worth the punt would it?

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      I must, must read Mariana. I meant to join in with you when you got to it, and failed.

      There are some cheapish copies out there, so might be worth it for you, but there are so, so many Monica Dickens books out there that you won't run dry for a while!

  • January 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Your snippet by Dickens is worth the price of the book alone!

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      And now I know who said this! Hello Darlene :) Yes, wasn't that priceless!

  • January 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Simon, I've just read Yours Sincerely too! Last week I read bits of it while sitting in hospital waiting rooms, which struck me as appropriate, given that the essays were originally published in the magazine Woman's Own. I was a little disappointed with it too. Beverley made me giggle a couple of times, but the snort-factor was definitely low. Don't let this put you off reading his early novels and essays – to my mind they're much funnier.

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      What a funny coincidence! I think it would definitely be a good waiting room book, because it doesn't require much attention, but it's definitely not as snortworthy as One Pair of Hands or One Pair of Feet.
      But I am definitely encouraged by your approval of BN's earlier stuff.

  • January 14, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    I highly recommend Nichol's "Down the Garden Path" if you are a gardener or just want to give him a second chance. It's a funny account of him buying a cottage in the country and becoming a gardener. He's passes curmudgeonly and is flat out mean on occasion, but very funny too, especially in his retelling of his skirmishes with an officious gardener who knows BETTER.

    I've bookmarked your blog and am looking forward to following your list of 50 books.

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      I am 100% NOT a gardener, but I do love books about people doing over houses, so have a few of the ones which divide between house and garden. But cross gardeners are a staple of this period of fiction, so I might well love it for that!

      Oh, and welcome :D

  • January 14, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Simon, having started you "down the garden path" with this book: "Both [authors] are rightly among the best-selling authors in this country. But this is the first time they have done a book together — a selection of their thoughts and moods and emotions culled from their famous weekly writings in the national weekly, 'Woman's Own.' The editor, Jimmy Drawbell, was a newspaper editor where he first brought them together (he does not name the paper), and then continued the collaboration in Woman's Own.

    • January 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks Sarah! My copy had very little info with it (unless I've forgotten what I read back in the autumn.) And thanks so much for recommending this little book to me!

  • January 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    I read BN's Down the Garden Path before Christmas and thoroughly enjoyed it. Got the sequel as a Christmas gift, so am hoping for more of the same. The only MD I have read was Mariana and I don't remember being wowed by it, but it sounds like I should try her again. This collection of essays does have my curiosity piqued though…Thanks, as always, for making the list grow longer. :)

  • January 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I think I too have one of his gardeney housey books somewhere, he seems to have written a lot of them! It's a long time since I read them, but three of his children's books (The Tree that Sat Down, The Stream that Stood Still, and The Mountain of Magic) I remember as being absolutely lovely. You could do worse than to track copies down and then save them for a day when you're feeling poorly…

  • January 15, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    Simon, please do give Beverley Nichols another chance. I reread the Merry Hall books in September and posted on them often during the month. Here are ten reasons I love BN:

    I would love to get my hands on a copy of Yours Sincerely which is going to take a bit of doing. It looks as if I will have to order from a shop in England. Perhaps I can become the new Helene Hanff and 84 Charing Cross Road!

  • January 16, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Simon, I must confess to being a BN devotee, even though I'm sure that he would find my clothes frumpy, my flowers anemic, and my decor pedestrian. Despite his bouts of meanness and snobbishness, something about him draws me in. I love the garden books, the Merry Hall trio, and his mysteries. But I think that you would most enjoy him as a cat lover. Cats A. B. C. and Cats X. Y. Z. reveal a man who adores his cats (almost to the point of idolotry.) And the gentle side of the mellowing Nichols is a pleasure.

    Kelly in Washington

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: