Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Monica Enid Dickens... The True Lady of Follyfoot

Monica Dickens.
Source: Desert Island Discs, BBC, 1951

Just who is Monica Dickens? Well, firstly, her surname gives us a clue as to who she is related to. Yes, none other than English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). But there is far more to this woman than just being the great-granddaughter of a literary genius. Though I have been a fan of Mr Dickens' work for decades, I was totally oblivious to his family tree. It is ironic, then, that I became an even greater fan of a series of books... and a television series based on one of those books: Follyfoot.

Monica was born in London on 10th May 1915, her parents were Henry Charles Dickens (1878–1966) and Fanny Dickens (née Runge). Sadly not much is known about Fanny except that she herself was born in Camberwell, London, in 1876; she was married to Henry in 1904 (Chelsea Registration District, London), sadly her death is unknown. Monica had a sister: Doris Elaine Mary Danby (née Dickens). The girls' upbringing was very middle class - Henry was a barrister - but Monica became disenchanted by the life around her. Not only was she expelled (she had attended St Paul's Girls' School, London) but Monica entered into domestic service. It is not what her father would have wished, I'm sure.

Her literature reflected the work she did, examples being the memoir One Pair Of Hands (1939) highlighting her experiences as a domestic servant and One Pair Of Feet (1942) in which she wrote about her time as a nurse. Her career at the Hertfordshire Express newspaper (published in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England) led to the book My Turn to Make the Tea (1951).

Monica married U.S Navy officer Roy O. Stratton in 1951 and migrated to the United States where they later adopted two girls called Pamela and Prudence. Her writing never stopped, with most of her work still set in England. She was also a passionate humanitarian and helped establish the first U.S Samaritans in Massachusetts in 1974. She worked closely with the Samaritans, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is the latter that influenced her novel Cobbler's Dream (1963) which, in the 1970s, was adapted into a popular British television show called Follyfoot. Due to its success, Monica wrote follow-up titles Follyfoot (1971), Dora at Follyfoot (1972), The Horses of Follyfoot (1975), and Stranger at Follyfoot (1976). The year prior to Cobbler's Dream, the author had visited The Home of rest for Horses (renamed The Horse Trust in 2006) and had been so touched by their tireless work that it became the influence for the Farm in the 1963 publication.

Between 1939 and 1992 she wrote many books, inspired those who met her and lived an extraordinary life, memories and experiences that she could share through her literature. In 1978 she had published an autobiography titled An Open Book. After her husband's death, in 1985, Monica returned to the UK where her career as a writer continued until her own death on Christmas Day in 1992. She was 77 years old.

Her final book, One of the Family (1993), was published posthumously.

When I think of my passion for Follyfoot, it dawns on me just how alike one of the characters is to Monica: Dora is from a privileged family who chooses to work on a farm and care for horses, she doesn't mind the hard labour at all, actually embracing the freedom that her new position brings. Dora's mother is set against her continuing at Follyfoot but her uncle, who owns the farm, signs it over to her so that she becomes Lady of Follyfoot. In fact, first book Cobbler's Dream was a tale that raised brutal awareness of the cruelty inflicted on horses; it was far from being a light-hearted read.

Her work lives on, some titles have even been digitised for the eBook market. And thanks to Follyfoot and its accompanying Yorkshire Television series, which ran in the UK from 1971 to 1973, there is much gratitude for a woman who rebelled, found her own path and forged a remarkable writing career.

Pages of interest: follyfoot.co.uk

Also check out portraits of Dickens at the National Portrait Gallery.