I started reading High Wages yesterday afternoon & finished it at 11.30 last night. What a terrific book. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve never started a Dorothy Whipple & been able to put it down. The book arrived before Christmas but I’d stopped myself from reading it because my online reading group had decided to read it in February & discuss it in March & I didn’t want to read it too early & risk forgetting details. So, I resolutely put it aside until yesterday.
Jane Carter gets a job at Chadwick’s, the drapers in Tidsley, a small Lancashire town. High Wages is the story of Jane’s rise from draper’s assistant, working for a pittance, living in with her stingy employers & dreaming of great things to owning her own shop & being able to realise those ambitions. Jane is a determined young woman. The scene where she confronts Mr Chadwick & forces him to keep her on after his most important customer, Mrs Greenwood, has demanded her dismissal is typical. Jane clearly sets out her worth to Mr Chadwick. She has already transformed the business, pushing staid Mr Chadwick into new areas, showing her talent for fashion by advising customers & modernising the displays. Now, Jane compares Mrs Greenwood’s 30 pounds worth of business a year to all that she has brought to the business. Mr Chadwick is dumbfounded but has to agree with Jane & her job is saved.
There’s so much humour in the book. Dorothy Whipple knew Lancashire well & she draws a fascinating picture of provincial society from 1912 through WWI to the 1920s. The social nuances are beautifully observed. When Jane & the Chadwicks go to the Hospital Ball, the details of clothes – a diamond shirt stud ruins Mr Chadwick’s evening – who Jane dances with, the fact that a tradesman like Mr Chadwick has tickets at all, causes apoplexy among people like the Greenwoods. This is a highly structured society. Dorothy Whipple takes us into the minds of characters from different social levels & shows us how dissatisfied nearly all of them are with their lot. Sylvia Greenwood is beautiful, envied by shopgirls like Jane, but she’s bored, forced by her social position to do little but look decorative. Mrs Briggs has risen from the working class when her husband becomes a partner to Mr Greenwood, the mill owner. She is a disgrace to her husband & upwardly mobile family because she can’t live up to her new circumstances. She prefers to do her own cooking & wear sateen petticoats than live in a house where servants do everything for her. Not until she becomes friends with Jane & helps her achieve the dream of owning her own dress shop does Mrs Briggs feel comfortable with her wealth.
I found it interesting that Jane’s natural self-esteem & ambition are fostered by reading. She meets Wilfrid, a library assistant who is walking out with Maggie, the other assistant at Chadwick’s. Wilfrid fosters her love of reading & soon she’s reading H G Wells’ Ann Veronica under the counter at work & being fired by what Mr Chadwick calls Socialist ideas. I loved Jane’s sense of what is due to herself. She confronts Mr Chadwick when he dishonestly refuses to pay Jane’s commission on a sale she’s made. She outwits Mrs Chadwick’s meanness to have a luxurious cold bath on a Sunday morning. She knows her own worth & I admired that very much. At the end of the book there’s a chance that Jane may give up her hard-won independence. I was so upset at the thought that I couldn’t bear to go to bed not knowing what would happen. That’s the real reason why I was still up at 11.30 propping my eyelids open! That’s why Dorothy Whipple is one of my favourite authors & my favourite Persephone author. She makes me care so much about her characters that I can’t go to bed until I know what’s going to happen to them. I do hope Persephone continue reprinting her books.