The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

Persephone_Books_Monica_Dickens2-489x600

This was going to be a perfectly ordinary point-by-point review of Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, but as I began writing (or ranting), I realised that my intense dislike of the novel was colouring everything I was saying. I stopped to think about my negative attitude, and came to the conclusion that the novel isn’t bad per se, but I hated the main character so much that this made the entire reading experience unenjoyable. This is an unusual reaction for me, as I am the first person to complain when someone dismisses a perfectly good novel as rubbish because they couldn’t ‘relate’ to the main character. Liking the main character should be neither here nor there; we don’t read books, surely, to only meet fictional people we like. After all, some of the best characters in novels are horrific people, whose behaviour destroys those around them. Their malevolence is marvellous to read. I’ve read plenty of novels where the characters have belonged to a world completely alien to my own, and yet I have still been gripped by their experiences and fascinated by their outlook on life. I’ve read novels where I’ve hated everyone  in it, but the writing has been so beautiful and the setting so haunting that I’ve been unable to put the book down regardless. Liking or relating to characters isn’t, in my opinion, as important as some people seem to think it is.

The writing in The Winds of Heaven is very good; humorous, warm and well observed, it draws the reader in from the very first page. The settings are those familiar, quintessentially mid century locations such as steamy Lyons’ tea rooms on foggy London street corners and mock tudor country houses with maid’s quarters and flower filled drawing rooms. The characters are interesting and varied, all living very different lives that reflect the rapidly changing social expectations of the time. It should have been Persephone gold. So why did I hate every minute of it? Was it because I hated the main character? Surely I couldn’t be so shallow a reader? Then it came to me; the reason why my hatred of the main character ruined the book for me was because I wasn’t supposed to hate her. Monica Dickens meant for me to empathise with her; poor, downtrodden Louise, shuffled from pillar to post, no independence, no freedom, left destitute by her nasty husband and unappreciated by her daughters, she is very much painted as an object of pity. I was incensed that I was supposed to pity a woman with no courage and no ingenuity. Her attitude towards her own life is one of passivity and apathy, and this is presented as entirely reasonable behaviour. Regardless of social expectations and so on, there is never any excuse to entirely abdicate responsibility for yourself. This is exactly what Louise does, and Monica Dickens wants us to like her for it?

My problem with The Winds of Heaven is that my own approach to life and my own moral code is entirely disconnected with that of Dickens’, and so no matter how good the writing, plot or setting, I couldn’t enjoy her book. If Louise had been presented as someone who needed a good kick up the behind, then I would have been perfectly happy. But she wasn’t, and there lay the problem. I can’t abide people who don’t make some attempt to overcome the difficulties of their own circumstances, and who spend their lives blaming others for their misfortune.  I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for living a life you don’t want; we all have choices, and we all have the power to change our lives. Some have fewer choices, and some have more difficult obstacles to navigate, but courage is free and available to all, and those who don’t use it get no sympathy from me. I was disappointed that Monica Dickens advocated Louise’s approach to life, and agreed that it was impossible for her to change things on her own. I thought I was going to like Dickens very much, but my rather battered copy of The Winds of Heaven, which got thrown against my bedroom wall, proves otherwise. Despite initially thinking it was because I couldn’t ‘relate’ to the characters, it’s actually because I can’t relate to the author. I think that’s a first for me!

53 comments

  1. Oh! Wow! You really didn’t like Louise, did you?!

    I’m re-reading this one right now for the ??? time, and while it isn’t my favourite Monica Dickens, it *is* one of the ones I rather like, so it’s fascinating to read a very different response. Yours is not the only negative review I’ve read; isn’t it interesting what we all take away from our reading?

    Monica Dickens excelled at creating characters who stayed true to their type; I don’t know that she always meant us to admire them. I always feel, while reading her work, that she was very much a keen-eyed observer at the edge of a crowded room. Her observations are frequently cutting, though tempered by humour and a wry self-awareness of her own failings and occasional hypocracy. Though I don’t always “like” her work – particularly some of her shorter novels written in her last years – I do admire it; she is one of my very favourite authors.

    Back to Louise in WofH, I do rather sympathize with her, and I find her appealing as a character. She does have a certain self-awareness of her ineffectual blunderings, which always counts for something. I have known women like her “in real life”; she is very much a depiction of a certain type of person who has responded in an “accepted” way to circumstances she found herself in. She is a very common sort of figure of her generation; I have known several carbon copy Louises among my mother’s friends, and my own mother shares some of her traits, especially that sense of helplessness regarding breaking away from an emotionally abusive marriage, and a response to the abuse which only serves to exacerbate it. It was just “how things were” for that particular class of women in thgat particular era; Louise’s character was not unique, merely a depiction of one of a varied range of sytereotypical “wives”. (My mother was born in 1925; she could well be Louise’s contemporary.)

    And Louise does eventually “break free” from her rut, does she not? She’s only been widowed for a bit more than a year as the story opens; she’s been floundering from the shock of the wreck of her idea of what her life would be like; she’s still getting sorted out in so many ways…

    Certainly the resolution of the story is something of a cliche, as Louise moves on to another sort of “protection” by a new husband-figure, but I found I wished her well, and thought that she deserved her chance at happiness.

    But that is merely my personal response.🙂 Yours is certainly as valid!

    Isn’t it fascinating how our personal experiences colour our responses to what we read?

    I hope you will continue to explore more of Monica Dickens’ work; the good things about her writing which you identified in that second paragraph are very good indeed. Don’t let Louise put you off Monica!😉

    1. And I must ask forgiveness for the many typos in the post I made earlier. I was typing away on my son’s laptop which has a smaller keyboard than I’m used to, and I hit post before I reviewed it. Oops!

      May I please link your review in the one I will be writing in a day or two regarding The Winds of Heaven? It is so good to have a range of responses to browse on when debating whether one should try a new author, or a new book.

      And much as I love Monica Dickens in general, she does sometimes annoy. (Though perhaps for different reasons than yours?) I do need to be in the proper mood to read certain of her works, and several of her later novels would definitely have made me write her off as an undesirable read if those had been the ones I’d read first. (Does that make sense?)

      I am continuing my own reading with your comments (well, everyone’s comments!) much in mind, and it is certainly making me pay much more attention as I go along. Always a good thing, especially during a re-read, when one gets a bit lazy because one already “knows the story”!

      1. Oh don’t worry! I didn’t even notice any typos!

        Yes of course – I quite agree- reading a range of opinions is always useful. I really enjoyed Dickens’ writing style, actually, which made it more of a shame that I couldn’t agree with the sentiment behind the writing!

    2. I know Louise is a product of her time, and I tried to understand that, but still…her passivity infuriated me and I think this novel is quite dated in that it accepts social norms that are so alien to me that I can’t appreciate them at all. The ending was the worst part – oh look, a man has come along to rescue her – how typical! It was all just so counter everything I believe in that I couldn’t see beyond my red mist in the end!

      I am heartened to hear that her other books are different and interesting though – I certainly very much enjoyed her writing style and I am not adverse to trying her other novels. Thank you for stepping in to show me a different side to the argument!

      1. Just finished the book this evening. And yes, I agree, the ending is a bit of a jaw-dropper and a disappointment. Not quite up to this author’s best.

        Reading along with your comments in mind, I did notice that Louise was an anomaly among her compatriots; numerous people told her to get out there and try a little harder; Gordon Disher was the only one who seemed to think that she was some sort of fragile flower who needed caring for. Her other friends were rather exasperated by her. As for the daughters…well, I thought that they weren’t portrayed by the author as the “bad guys” as much as young women dealing with their various own complicated lives. The ending bit where they all hang their heads, that was a bit of a low blow by Mr. Disher, I thought.

        So I wonder what the author was trying to say. Possibly nothing; I rather think she was just laying out the story as it came into her head from her observations of people she’d encountered. (Maybe?)

        Might I suggest several other titles I’ve personally enjoyed much more? I’ve read all of Monica Dickens’ many novels, and my favourites probably remain The Fancy (following a group of disparate characters working in an aircraft factory mid-WW II) and The Happy Prisoner (immediately post WW II an amputee comes to terms with his injury while trying to sort out the complicated lives of his extended family). Both of those stories are unsentimentally poignant, frequently humorous and very engaging.

        Monica Dickens was a very good writer of her era’s “popular fiction”; I love reading her now, some 40 years past her heyday, because of the vivid word pictures and character portraits she tossed off seemingly effortlessly. No masterpieces, but diverting reading, and wonderfully evocative snapshots of time and place and the eternal ridiculousness (and also frequent gallantry) of human behaviour.

      2. Thanks for the recommendations – I’ve certainly not been put off her entirely because her writing style is very good and I did enjoy her story telling technique. I was left confused by what exactly she was trying to say – it’s a bit of a mess of a novel, really, as I didn’t feel that her daughters were particularly unkind – it just felt rather aimless to me. A shame but perhaps just a product of its time, and now it has become rather dated for us modernites.

  2. I completely AGREE with your statement: “I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for living a life you don’t want; we all have choices, and we all have the power to change our lives. Some have fewer choices, and some have more difficult obstacles to navigate, but courage is free and available to all, and those who don’t use it get no sympathy from me.” Well put!
    I have NOT read the novel you’ve reviewed here, but I would it’s clear that the author’s writing definitely evoked very visceral reactions and emotions in you, which IS usually a sign of a good writer….. Or, at least, that’s what I, personally, strive for in my own books…. Just a thought! : )

    http://maryedavis.wordpress.com

    1. Thanks Mary! Yes, that’s exactly right – any book that moves us strongly must be a good piece of writing, and I don’t dispute that at all. I just hated the sentiment behind it!

    2. Not every one has choices and it’s sometimes very difficult, not to say impossible, to change one’s life. This sort of thinking is very unkind and rather fatuous and does a great deal of damage.

      1. I’m sorry you feel that I have been unkind and fatuous in my thinking, Eloise. I’m surprised by that. I don’t see how it can ever be damaging to encourage and empower people to make positive changes to their lives.

  3. I always think a novel does it’s job when it illicits a strong reaction. Art happens where the artist and the viewer/reader intersect. It will be a slightly different place for everyone.

  4. I wasn’t going to read your review just yet, as TWOH is in my TBR bookcase and I was going to keep your review to read after. However, I was immediately drawn in when I spied your first sentence out of the corner of my eye!

    I loved Monica Dickens’ ‘Marianna’ and I wonder if you’ve read that one? Don’t write off MD yet!🙂

  5. Hi Rachel –

    What refreshing piece of writing this is! I think it’s all too easy for us, especially if we get caught up (however subliminally) in any sense of feeling that we must always have something positive to say about a book, to sublimate what we may really think or feel about a particular writer or book. I’ve always struggled with Monica Dickens – to the point that I’ve never managed to even finish one of her books – and I think it’s probably for similar reasons that you so eloquently point out.

    Underdogs are all very well, and there are plenty of them in the literary canon, but the ones we love are those who – like people we admire in real life – have the guts to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do something about/with their lives.

    Well done for persevering through to the end – you really threw the book against the wall???!!! And thank you for such a ‘real’ response.

    Karen

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Thanks Karen. Yes, it’s hard to say negative things, isn’t it. I didn’t want to sugar coat how I felt for a change – this was my gut reaction and I wanted to share it! Oh yes- the last page made me so furious I saw red!! You’re welcome – thank you for understanding and appreciating my point of view!

  6. But Rachel, if she bucked her ideas up, joined Match.com/Open University, and had a fling with her best friend’s son instead of a wistful friendship with the fat bloke in John Lewis’s bedding dept … it wouldn’t have been the 1950s! Ages since I read this but I rather enjoyed it, even though it’s so Woman’s Own-ish. Found Mariana totally boring, though!

    1. Yes, that’s what I was thinking – the 50s were a very different time. There are times and places I think where it is in fact very hard to make choices. Sometimes it really can be a case of putting up or being homeless. How easy would it have been, for example, for a woman of her age to get a job in 1950s postwar England? I haven’t read the book … and am intrigued to do so, mainly to see whether I agree with Rachael’s sense of Dickens’ intention.

      BTW Rachael, it was funny to see this review pop up today as we were in our favourite second had bookshop the other day and on their bargain table they had a pile of Monica Dickens’ books … I was tempted – have read a few of her books but back in the late 1960s/70s when I was a teen and young twenties – and remember enjoying them, but I don’t think I read this one.

      1. Well yes, I know…but she could have TRIED. That was what bothered me – the total acceptance of her lot and her passivity. No effort to make any changes whatsoever.

        What a coincidence! Her writing style is very enjoyable but I think her books are just a bit too dated now for my liking!

      2. I haven’t read the book of course – but perhaps (well I know!) also I’m closer to the era. This would have been pretty much my Mum’s era, though she was in her 20s in the 50s whereas I think this character was in her 50s or so? Either way, I have some sympathy for women then. I don’t think they had a lot of choices and those they did were not easy to make. Some choices take more bravery than others? Anyhow, clearly for whatever reason this character by this author didn’t appeal to you. Is she anything like Anita Brookner’s characters? (Though I know Brookner’s style is very different.)

    2. Were all women in the 50s utterly useless?!?! I hope not! I just wanted her to try and make a few changes! My Nan was up to all sorts in the 50s – Louise did have some opportunities open to her, surely – she just made no attempt to seek them out whatsoever!

  7. Hello Rachel, I was curious when I saw the name Monica Dickens, as I haven’t read any of her books yet and have wanted to for some time, but from your review, this one doesn’t sound my cup of tea either. Is this the first book of hers that you’ve read?
    I also see that you’re reading ‘Pigeon Pie,’ another one I’ve been wanting to read, I do hope you do a review of it. Best wishes, Lori

    1. Yes, it is my first of hers – I can’t see me trying another any time soon! Yes I am – nearly finished. Not Mitford’s best but certainly worth a go nonetheless.

  8. You know, Rachel, there have been times I’ve thought this about a book, and couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like it – when it is the author I can’t relate to. Thank you for that perspective. Not sure if I will ever pick this one up, but, your thoughts will follow me through to other books, other perspectives.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one to feel this way, Penny – it’s certainly not a viewpoint I’ve thought about before either. It felt a bit like a revelation!

  9. I was particularly amused by the “get no sympathy from me” section of your post that Mary Davis highlighted, but as another Mary points out this was the 1950s. I suspect that most of us have beliefs that are so important to us that we cannot help reacting against characters who fail to meet our standards. I have long considered Dora in David Copperfield to be something of a wet blanket, but that is exactly what she is supposed to be, and my irritation with her looks utterly passive by comparision with your opinion of Louise. I suspect I would have a lot more sympathy with Louise than you do, and not just because my brother previously sold furniture in in John Lewis (and I rate their own-brand beds very highly).

    Incidentally, I have a sneaking suspicion that John Lewis might be the most frequently mentioned retailer in fiction. They got so many mentions in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life I almost suspected there was some kind of sponsorship deal in place.

    1. Oh, don’t even talk to me about Dora! She drives me to distraction! The thing is, I completely understand the circumstances of the time and that there were very few opportunities for women like Louise – but I can’t imagine myself behaving in the same way in the same circumstances regardless. There is always SOMETHING you can do. And you know what? There are worst shops to promote than John Lewis!😉

  10. I haven’t read the book, but I like and dislike your argument against the main character blaming others for her failures. On the one hand – personally, actually – I do agree with you, but just of lately and taking into account the setting, I’ve asked myself whether women before my generation really had a choice or not. Some just didn’t because of culture, education, their families etc. I haven’t read the book, but maybe the main character wasn’t a subject in her own life but mainly an agent. Anyways, this postmodern ranting has helped me to understand some female characters in literature although it hasn’t helped with my dislike for them.

    1. I do absolutely understand that women then had few choices, in many ways – there simply weren’t the opportunities that we enjoy today. I was just infuriated by her passive acceptance of it all – I would have liked her to at least TRY. I think there are some novels that are just too dated to engage with now – I mean, when you think about Jane Austen, for example – she clearly had views that are far more modern than Monica Dickens!!

      1. I sometimes wonder if, who would I be now had I been educated on a conservative and patriarchal housewold. I’d like to think I would have started a revolution and they’d probably thrown me out of the house, but who knows!

        I agree there are writers to think and write out of the box though. They are the ones we tend to admire😀

  11. I haven’t read this but I had a similar though less intense reaction to Mariana. Now I wonder if all heroines in Monica Dickens novels are the kinds to which life just happens little action from their side.

  12. I loved the passion of your review and found, as usual, much to think about. I love Mariana, but I read it at a time in my life when it resonated with me and it still does in subsequent re readings.

    I clearly go to the same bookshop as Whispering Gums because I too saw the Monica Dickens paperbacks for sale on the outside table. Oddly, when it came to the crunch, I didn’t buy them because I had read some of them before, wasn’t in the mood to read her and agree with the comment made by leavesandpages about the quality of some of her later works.

    I think that when she is on form Monica Dickens is superb.

    Thank you Rachel for an honest and thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks Sue! I’m just not sure whether Monica Dickens is a writer I will ever enjoy, but if I come across one of her novels again, I will give it a try and see what I think. I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion!

  13. Well you’ve certainly given the pot a little stir, Rachel. I am far from naive when it comes to a woman’s lot in the 1950s but last night I found myself actually gasping – yes gasping- while reading about the inequalities in 1939: The Last Season by de Courcy. Nevermind how young ladies were raised in everyday life, Cambridge and Oxford were discriminating against women when it came to lectures and degrees! We’ve come a long way, baby, but things are far from perfect even today. One of my biggest challenges with reading twentieth century fiction has been swallowing the passive behaviour of some female characters and I’ve always admired your ability to understand and sympathize. You are one ticked off reader with this one though! Let’s make this an agenda item for the next time you, Mary, and me are sitting in a tearoom, how’s that?

    1. I know, you know what, I am normally such an understanding reader, but for some reason, I just couldn’t with this one. I don’t know why. Maybe because there was no undertone of fury coming from Dickens…most passive women novels are written from a feminist perspective, so I’ve never had to face a situation of acceptance of the status quo like this before. I would love to have a discussion about this in person! Let’s make it soon!

  14. I read this recently and loved it, and I liked poor Louise, even though she is so passive, and passive heroines often irritate me beyond measure (it was the main reason I didn’t like Colm Toibin’s Broolyn). As others have said, you do have to put things in the context of the times, plus everyone’s character is different, but I will admit that had I read this 30 years ago, I suspect I would not have liked it, and my reaction may well have been similar to yours.

    1. I think I just had a very big personality clash with this one. It doesn’t happen to me often, but when it does happen, it really happens! I do wonder whether I would feel differently if I came back at a later time in my life. Passive heroines are definitely not my bag though!

  15. I do love it when you write about books you don’t like, and explain so cogently why! I enjoyed The Winds of Heaven quite a lot, but thought the writing and plot were very soap operay, and it’s certainly not in the same league as One Pair of Hands. But I didn’t hate Louise (although the background characters were all a bit absurdly good or evil).

    I didn’t hate her, because I don’t have the same feelings as you towards autonomy and courage, I think. (And I wonder if Louise was uncourageous, or if she was fearful? There is a world of difference – indeed, of course, people without fear never need courage.) For those without fear, self-autonomy or decisive action sounds like the most logical thing in the world – but while this option is available to all, in some measure, it’s also insurmountably difficult to acquire for those who don’t have it naturally.

    My tuppenyworth!

    1. I think I would like Monica Dickens in other contexts…interestingly I found a nice old copy of One Pair of Hands in a charity shop today but decided not to get it. Maybe I’ll go back for it as you like it so much and we do normally agree on these things.🙂

      Yes, I think I’m rather extreme in my feelings about autonomy and courage. I completely see what you mean – to me this is an entirely logical idea, and I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t be able to summon courage to do what they wanted. It’s made me think about my attitude a little – I should be more understanding! Thank you Simon!

      1. Oh, do try One Pair of Hands, Rachel! Monica Dickens (for it is basically autobiographical) is the very opposite of downtrodden, and I think would earn your respect very readily🙂

        Thanks for your lovely reply!

  16. I loved this book Rachel, but can understand your frustration – it might have felt the same if I’d read it when I was younger? I felt so very sorry for Louise! I admired her in many ways – not least for never wingeing – and I felt she was a victim of long term mental abuse. Do try One Pair of Hands/ Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea though!

    1. I wonder whether I would react differently if I were older…I just felt so appalled by her passivity! I am keen to try more of her novels though. I would be interested in the autobiographical stuff she’s written – they do sound fascinating!

  17. Well, this discussion is truly very interesting. I’m finding it rather marvelous that a “negative” review has opened up so much room for such varied comments, much more so than a simple “I liked this book and here’s why” post might have.

    I was initially rather appalled that a fellow reader whose tastes in books I share couldn’t quite get into Monica Dickens, indeed, was so put off by her that the book was given the “hurl against the wall” treatment – which I’ve also done on rare occasions with something personally offensive😉, most notably with one of V.S. Naipaul’s novels – can’t even remember the title – but it was so deeply misogynistic (in my opinion) that after tossing it roughly into the giveaway box I had second thoughts, retrieved it, and then, opening up the wood stove, consigned it to the flames…

    So glad that you didn’t go quite so far with Monica Dickens! And I do hope you will give her another chance some day. It’s interesting that some of her books which I wasn’t so keen on in my younger days now seem quite brilliant to me in middle age! So perhaps it’s also a case of where you are in your life. Perhaps?
    Anyway, I’m quite enjoying this discussion, and have been reading the comments all the way along, as I clicked the follow-up button and am getting everything via email – something I seldom do as a rule.🙂

    1. I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the discussion so much!🙂 And I’m sorry we couldn’t agree on this one. But I certainly am not adverse to trying more of her novels and I do think that perhaps she is a novelist for people of a certain age group. I think her books are dated and the values she expresses seem very out of touch to me. However her writing style is appealing and I think if I found a slightly more accomplished novel that wasn’t quite so aimless as well as having a passive main character, I’d probably very much enjoy myself. She’s no V S Naipaul! I love that story – I don’t know if I could ever bring myself to burn a book!

  18. What a fascinating blog–and how very different from my response to the book. I read it first in my teens, back in the 1960s, and I re-read it when the Persephone Press edition came out and absolutely loved it. One of the things in the book I found particularly touching was Louise’s connection with her grand-daughter and the way the revelation concerning the child was handled (trying to avoid spoilers here.) For me, this is possibly Monica Dickens’s most satisfying novel.

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