Monday, 8 June 2015
High Wages- Dorothy Whipple
The Blurb- taken from the Persephone Website
It is about a girl called Jane who gets a badly-paid job in a draper’s shop in the early years of the last century. Yet the title of the book is based on a Carlyle quotation – ‘Experience doth take dreadfully high wages, but she teacheth like none other’ – and Jane, having saved some money and been lent some by a friend, opens her own dress-shop.
As Jane Brocket writes in her Persephone Preface: the novel ‘is a celebration of the Lancastrian values of hard work and stubbornness, and there could be no finer setting for a shop-girl-made-good story than the county in which cotton was king.’ And the cultural historian Catherine Horwood has written about this novel: ‘Dorothy Whipple was only too well aware that clothes were one of the keys to class in this period. Before WW1, only the well-off could afford to have their clothes made: yards of wool crepe and stamped silks were turned into costumes by an invisible army of dressmakers across the country, and the idea of buying clothes ready-made from a dress shop was still unusual. Vera Brittain talks of “hand-me-downs” in Testament of Youth with a quite different meaning from today. These were not clothes passed from sibling to sibling but “handed down from a rack” in an outfitter’s shop, a novelty.’ High Wages describes how the way people shopped was beginning to change; it is this change that Dorothy Whipple uses as a key turning point in her novel.
I read High Wages for the Sheffield Persephone Book Group, and we last Thursday we met at Bird's Yard Sheffield to discuss our latest read. Here are a few of my thoughts about the book.
High Wages had appealed to me for a long time, mainly because everything I'd read about it indicated it was the story of a young woman starting a business and making her way in the world. Although written in 1930, the book is set from c1912 into the 1920s, and I'd expected Whipple's novel to offer a good insight into the life of ambitious women in this pivotal period in history.
The opening scenes, where Jane takes a job at a large department store, grabbed my attention. I could imagine the shop windows and down-on-her-luck Jane peering into them full of hopes and aspirations. I wanted to know where the plot would go and if this would be the inspirational shop girl-made-good story I hoped for.
It's fair to say I was surprised when the emphasis of the story shifted to romance, as although it's an ever-popular theme in literature- particularly that aimed at women- the reviews and articles I'd seen focussed on the elements of fashion, business and society within the novel. Jane, who in the early chapters appears to be quite an 'average' girl in every sense, seems to turn men's heads left, right and centre. The creative Wilf and attractive Noel both show signs of interest in Jane, and there's also evidence of her hold over other men, such as mentioned in the scene at the ball. I imagine some of these scenes were considered quite risqué when the book was first published. As a reader of contemporary romance, I can see how High Wages might be considered an early example of modern women's fiction-it had a lot in common with the bestselling 'chicklit' titles I've read recently.
Whilst I liked the writing style and some of the more vividly painted scenes (especially the visit to the seaside which captured the essence of the great British holiday), I longed for more consistent character development. It felt hard to get to know who Jane was and what she wanted, and although I mostly wished her success there were times I thought she acted inconsistently. However, High Wages is early Whipple, written at a time when she was developing her style and honing her writing skills, and I can imagine her later works are more well-rounded in a literary sense.
High Wages was a page turner of a book and I can see why it appeals to the modern reader. It just wasn't what I'd expected. If you're interested in social history, the development of women's fiction and enjoy a good old-fashioned love triangle, High Wages might be for you.
High Wages is out now, published in paperback by Persephone Books.