A Book for Monica Dickens Day: Flowers on the Grass (1949)

I knew that Monica Dickens was an interesting author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults; but when I picked up this book – with flowers in the title and on the cover, with my own name as the title of the first chapter – I really didn’t expect such a distinctive novel.

Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view but linked by the presence of the same man.

Daniel was an only child, and when he was orphaned at the age of fourteen he became the ward of an elderly relation who wasn’t much interested in him. When he was expelled from Eton, his guardian sent the troubled boy to another distant relative in Italy, hoping that he would have no more responsibility and the scandal would be quickly forgotten. Daniel was happy there. His new guardian gave him a great deal of freedom, and he found that he loved the bohemian lifestyle and that he had a gift for art.

When war broke out he returned to England, he joined the army, and he met a distant cousin named Jane. She knew Daniel’s history, she appreciated what he had been through, and she fell in love with him. It was Jane who supported him when he was shattered by his experiences, and who guided him towards a new life in the English countryside.

Daniel’s stability and domestic happiness was shattered by Jane’s sudden and unexpectedly death. He abandoned his home and work and sets off,  not entirely sure where he would go or what he would do, only certain that he could not stay.

He would drift from place to place and from job to job. He doesn’t fall apart on the surface, but he withdrew and he began to drink heavily.

When he took a room at a small hotel a maid named Doris was concerned for him. She helped him to keep his dog – Jane’s dog – illicitly in his room, she smuggled out his empty wine bottles bottles and she made excuses for him and tried to help him when his behaviour became somewhat erratic. It was inevitable that the hotel owner would find out and that Doris would lose her job; but Daniel had a strong sense of justice, he was worldly wise, and he found a way for her to get her job back.

After that Daniel found a landlady who rented out a room in her house so that she could have a little money in her pocket without having to ask her husband or her sons, and because she liked having company in the house. She thought that her new lodger was charming, but her boys saw that he was idle and when they found that he had a talent for art they found a role for him in their business. He did a good job, but he found out a little more that they wanted him to know. In the end they thought he might get them in to trouble; he didn’t, but they found themselves paying a price as Daniel moved on again.

Some years later, when Daniel is working for an advertising firm, he rents a room from an attractive war widow named Valerie, who makes ends meet by taking in lodgers. They become good friends, she enjoys modelling for his sketches, but he resents her commitment to her role and her friendship with her other, more conventional lodger, Mr. Piggott. They talk of marriage, and it is then that Valerie realises that her feelings for Daniel are not strong enough to stop her thinking of herself as her widow.

There are other stories between these: Daniel has a spell as a tutor to an epileptic young man in Cornwall, who is unsettled by an approach and attitudes quite different to his predecessors; he sees a holiday camp very differently to the young man who looks after him when he comes to make sketches for an advertising campaign, and they make each other question their futures; he takes a position at a modern, experimental school where he might harm or he might help a troubled young woman named Pamela, who was a loner like him …

In the end an accident, a stay in hospital and a chance to help the patient in the next bed brought his story full circle and made me realise just how far Daniel had come.

I loved reading these stories. Each one was different, and distinctive, but they sat quite naturally together.

Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The characters and settings were so clearly and distinctively drawn in that I found myself drawn in and wanting to know more about them and their situations before Daniel appeared and I found out how they would affect his life and how he would affect theirs.

When I read Daniel’s progress often felt secondary, but now I have put the book down I am thinking of him more and realising how very clever Monica Dickens was, writing this novel about his life as a chain of short stories about other people. She wrote with warms and understanding, and she conveyed the happiness in their lives as well as their sorrows.

The stories that Monica Dickens told in this book, the lives that she portrayed, created panorama of post-war England; its strengths and its weaknesses, the problems that it faced and the potential for the future that it held.

Her voice was strong and true, making this a book for both the heart and the head.