Sunday, 27 February 2011
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
It's Persephone Reading Weekend in literary blog land, hosted by cardigangirlverity and Paperback Reader, who have some tempting competitions for Persephone enthusiasts. I've read all my Persephone editions, but I did have a Penguin edition of High Wages knocking about, and decided this was a prime opportunity to give it a try.
High Wages opens in 1912, when seventeen-year-old Jane Carter gets a job in Chadwick's, a draper's shop in the fictional Lancashire town of Tidsley. Jane is bright and ambitious, and the novel tracks her successful progress at Chadwick's; the war is good for the drapery business, and Jane becomes a valuable employee, if a constant thorn in the side of cautious, dim Mr Chadwick. Jane longs for a shop of her own, and thanks to her friendship with motherly Mrs Briggs, who has come up in the world but doesn't much like it, Jane is able to leave Chadwick's and set up her own dress shop. In other ways, however, Jane's life runs less smoothly. Her friendship with Maggie, who also works at Chadwick's, is lost when Maggie's young man Wilfred shows a preference for Jane. Jane likes Wilfred, who works at the library and is well-read and intelligent, but her eventual passion is for Noel Yarde, a young solicitor who marries the local heiress.
Dorothy Whipple crams a lot of interesting stuff into High Wages. Jane's progress and development are interesting in their own right, but Whipple also brings in the social constraint of small-town life, and the ways in which the Great War chips away at notions of rank. We get an insight into how a lively young man like Noel can be reduced to a silent, uncommunicative husband, hiding behind his newspaper. But her main theme is that of business, and how business and its success and failure can have far-reaching effects on the personal lives of those who rely on it; it is the vagaries of business that really drive the plot. Her characterisations have depth, and even when a character appears only briefly - like the seaside landlady that Jane and Mrs Briggs stay within Blackpool - she gives colour and texture to the depiction. There are also some entertaining comic episodes, particularly Jane's regular battles with Mr Chadwick and the moment of high farce when she encounters a cad at the Tidsley Hospital Ball.
If I have one quibble about this book, it is that I was unconvinced by the ending. I won't give it away, but Jane's choices at the end of the book seem slightly out of character to me. I also thought the ending rather rushed, as if Dorothy Whipple had run up against her publisher's deadline, and hurried it to a close. But in terms of interest and enjoyment, High Wages sits alongside Someone at a Distance and The Closed Door among Dorothy Whipple's fiction, and I can quite see why Persephone have published it.