This book was published in 1964 and is a sharp slap for anyone who thinks of Monica Dickens as a cosy writer. I’ve always found One Pair of Feet interesting, was distinctly underwhelmed by Mariana, which so many people love, and have enjoyed lighter books like Flowers on the Grass. Kate and Emma is one of the bleakest books you could ever read. It’s the story of the unlikely friendship between Emma, middle class daughter of a magistrate, and poor abused Kate, from a dreadful home. They first meet when Kate appears in court, because she’s left home and is running wild. There’s an immediate attraction between the two girls, which eventually tests Emma’s loyalty to the limit.
Kate gets pregnant, marries, and by the time she’s twenty two, has four children. Emma is horrified to find Kate slipping backwards, her life descending into the same squalor she fled. Then the abuse begins, of her elder son. Emma has a job in the family firm, various boyfriends, and time spent working in America. Through it all, and even when she is shocked to find her father not the perfect man she wants him to be, she tries very hard to keep in touch with Kate. When she starts to suspect the worst of her friend (without blaming her), she turns to her old friend Johnny Jordan, ‘the cruelty man’ and easily the nicest character in the book. What they find is horrific, but still Emma won’t give up on Kate. Predictably, the book ends with both girls unhappy.
The narrative is in the first person, the girls taking alternate passages (no chapters, very annoying!), often describing the same events but each from her own angle. It’s a salutary reminder that the community spirit said to be found in working class communities in the 1960s was in fact sadly lacking; also that, nearly fifty years on, little has changed for some families and their neglected and abused children. I’ll end as I began, with Larkin’s depressing line: Man hands on misery to man, It deepens like a coastal shelf, because that’s what Monica Dickens seems to be saying here.