"At raspberry time or when the peaches from the kitchen graden were ripe, she occasionally joined the tea party in the summer house, to which maids with blowing aprons brought out the fruit and silver jugs of yellow Jersey cream from the farm. . . . Beyond the playhouse and the ha-ha wall which bounded the cricket lawn, mowed by a donkey wearing leather boots, the thistles and long grass of the park sloped down to a pond which had been dredged out for swimming. The diving board had a pole at the end of it, so that cousin George could balance there after he had taken off his wooden leg. A child might go to the kitchen or pantry with a message from one of the nannies who did not dare to ring a bell, but never into the servants' hall or sitting room . . . beyond the green blaze their lives were as inviolate as the world of the grownups or the nannies or the children. . . ."
For Monica Dickens, childhood at Chilworthy was solid and safe, a time as lost to us now as that of her great-grandfather. Charles Dickens. It was a time of vast family gatherings, "gigantic teas with six kinds of cake two hours before dinner," amateur theatricals and readings from Dickens, using the great author's own velvet-covered lectern - a life she describes with love in her autobiography, "An Open Book."
Now, at 63, she can talk about those days with a certain nostalgia. As a girl, she despised the whole business, fought hard to lead her own kind of life. Expelled from school, she was sent to another school in Paris. Presented at court, she refused to be just another society debutante and hired out as a cook. (Periodically, much later, she would meet a former employer at a society function, causing some confusion.)
She wrote a book about the upstairs-downstairs life, and it proved a minor sensation. Then she became a nurse in a London hospital and wrote a book about that. Her report on inequities and officials idiocies got her blackballed.
All this time she was making a name in Britain as a popular novelist and columnist for a women's magazine. In the Dickens family this amounted to sacrilege: for them there could be only one family writer, and that was Charles.
But Monica wasn't finished with them yet: At 36 she married - an American. He was a naval officer named Roy Stratton, and he moved her to Cape Cod, where they still live with two daughters, commuting to England once a year.
A decade ago, her book research took her to a suicide prevention group in London, the Samaritans, who so impressed her that she started a similar enterprise in Boston in 1974. It is the concern of her life.
"We're one of the few completely nonprofit anti-suicide bureaus," she said on a visit to Washington for her publisher, Mayflower Books. "We have 100 volunteers in Boston and 50 more in the Cape Cod branch. There are 200 branches in England now, and I think they definitely had something to do with the drop in suicide rates there."
In the past 12 years Britain's suicides have been reduced by 38 per cent. Meanwhile, in America, there is work to do: The national rate is increasing, she says, especially among the young. Cape Cod's rate is triple the national average.
"We feel our role is befriending rather than counseling," the writer said. "We're listeners, we don't give advice. I think it's more useful, really: When you're having trouble you don't want to hear someone telling you what to do. Sometimes I just sit there and listen for two hours and don't say a word, and then the person tells me what wonderful advice I gave."
Though the group is listed in the phone book under Suicide, many calls come not from actual would-be suicides but simply from people who need desperately to talk to someone. Once in a while a caller has already taken action, swallowed pills, perhaps. In those cases, the volunteer moves quickly.
"But most of the time it's not so much crisis intervention as prevention. It's a call for help. They tell you their problems and you hear them out. Sometimes they come around to the solution by themselves, but some people set up barriers; the yes-but syndrome. People really do make their own situation. I think, they create it for themselves. They set up barriers against alternatives, so they're permanently depressed. They spend a lot of energy on maintaining this state."
All that listening may tend to make one a bit brisk, though not dismissive. It seems that Monica Dickens (along with the Samaritans founder, Chad Varah of London) has discovered a source of the modern malaise: With everyone wrapped individually in cellophane, it is harder than ever for us to reach each other, tell our thoughts, show our feelings.
That takes trust, and trust is built on security. Maybe there was something to be said after all for Monica Dickens- golden days in the country house where everyone knew who they were and a gently raise rich girl could become a cook with perfect serenity.