Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: High Wages, by Dorothy Whipple

Pages: 316

Original date of publication: 1930

My edition: 2009 (Persephone)

Why I decided to read: Heard about it through the Persephone catalogue

How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, March 2010

Set in the years leading up to and through WWI, this is the tale of Jane Carter, a teenage girl when the story begins, who gets a job as an assistant in a draper’s shop in a town. The story takes Jane from the 1910s up through the 1920s, when she opens up her own shop, becoming as she does so much more independent.

This is one of Dorothy Whipple’s earlier novels, so it’s less polished than, say They Were Sister or Someone at a Distance. Still, it’s interesting for the way it portrays life in the early 20th century and the difference between the various classes (Jane as a poor girl from Lancashire; Mr. Chadwick, who has aspirations to something more; the wealthy, genteel Greenwoods; and the Briggses, who are self-made). I enjoyed watching how those differences began to break down and how these various characters interact with each other. I loved Mrs. Briggs especially; she’s married to one of the wealthiest people in town, but she’s still kept her lower-class ways, dropping her aitches and befriending shopgirls. She’s eccentric and entertaining, which makes her an engaging character.

In addition, I enjoyed watching Jane’s development from a slightly shy shopgirl to an independent shopowner, one of the New Women of the early 20th century (but not a feminist). It’s truly amazing (albeit somewhat unrealistic) how she eventually gets the better of the Greenwoods in the end, or how she manages to come to the rescue of the Briggses, just in the nick of time (a plot contrivance, if ever I saw one, but I enjoyed it).

There may a couple of problems with the plot, but I really enjoyed Dorothy Whipple’s character descriptions—she has a way of summing up her characters in just a few sentences. The characters in some of Whipple’s later novels tend to be either too good or too bad, but here there’s a little more gray area, which I enjoyed. Incidentally, this novel also contains an interesting look at the ways in which fashion changed in the early 20th century—as seen in Jane’s willingness to adopt a ready-made department, for example, or using a shop window to advertise goods. The author uses fashion and clothing to describe her characters’ personalities and station in life, and they spend a lot of time in this novel obsessing over the little details. I loved how Dorothy Whipple managed to work all of this into the novel in a way that was subtle.

This is Persephone no. 85. Endpaper below:

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