On Christmas Day I jumped out of bed to see if Father Christmas had brought me the one thing, the only thing that I really wanted; the latest Whipple offering from Persephone Books – High Wages. As I rumpaged through my stocking so lovingly put together by my mother, I was after one thing. My fingers reached something smooth and book-like. I pulled out a delightful, grey book with shining endpapers.
The thing is, I couldn’t read it straightaway. I had to save it for the perfect moment so I read a couple of other books before settling down on a snowy day with the tabby cat on my lap, a slice of my mum’s delicious Christmas cake and, of course, a pot of steaming tea.
Jane Carter is ambitious, resourceful and intelligent. She loves to read, she loves clothes and she loves success. When she enters Mr Chadwick’s draper’s shop to ask for the job of assistant she sees the chance to escape her stepmother and make a better life for herself. Mr Chadwick hires Jane and very quickly she becomes his best worker. Jane soon befriends Maggie, who also works in the shop, and Maggie’s young man Wilfred who works in the library. Wilfred falls in love with Jane as she is interesting and reads, unlike Maggie, and he quietly yearns for her as he knows she does not love him.
Mr Chadwick’s business improves with Jane’s expertise, he is a wealthy man yet the high society in Tidsley do not accept him into their social circle. He is after all, a shopkeeper. So, when Jane befriends Mrs Briggs the honest wife of a partner in the local cotton business she secures tickets for herself and Mr and Mrs Chadwick to attend the Hospital Ball. The social event of the year oganised by the social queen of Tidsley, Mrs Greenwood.
Mrs Greenwood makes it clear that she disapproves of their attendance and when Jane is assaulted by a young and wealthy man, Mrs Greenwood purposefully implies that Jane is of ‘loose’ virtue and threatens that she and her daughter, the beautiful Sylvia, will not take their custom to Mr Chadwick’s any longer.
Mr Chadwick is beside himself as he respects the social strata and regrets ever trying to ignore it. When Jane tries to defend herself his position is very clear,
“”What happened at the ball was no fault of mine, placed as I was. Mrs.
Greenwood has no right to speak like that; she oughtn’t to be in a position to
speak like that…’
‘Now, Miss Carter said Mr Chadwick, wriggling. ‘No
socialistic notions here, please.'”
Despite this incident Jane manages to keep her job and continues to bring good business to Mr Chadwick’s. Jane frequently looks outside of her position and sees things that people like Mr Chadwick will never allow themselves. She sees the local eligible bachelor, Noel Yarde and daydreams about him. She watches as he courts Sylvia Greenwood and thinks about what it would be like to move in those social circles. But, after all, she is just a shopgirl.
When Maggie finds out that Jane and Wilfred shared a quick, meaningless kiss she forces Jane to leave Mr Chadwick’s. This turns out to be a triumph of fate as she receives a loan from Mrs Briggs to set up her own shop. Jane becomes incredibly successful but more importantly she is an independent businesswoman and Noel Yarde, now married to Sylvia, finally notices her.
As the First World War comes and goes Whipple manages to capture the slow but pervading change that took place in small towns like Tidsley. She examines a moment in British history when social boundaries were shifting, women were emerging from the shadows and shopping would become a whole new experience with the introduction of ‘ready to wear’. Clothes are still, to some extent, an indication as to your wealth or social standing. In the early twentieth century they were even more so – they were clear social signifiers. With the introduction of ready made clothing, these clear signals started to wane and the image of the regal, corseted Mrs Greenwood would disappear.
High Wages absolutely lived up to my expectations – Whipple has once again captured the minutiae of everyday life, of the conditions for women and the fact that life does not always go to plan. I like Jane, I easily sympathised with her even when she was so obviously getting it wrong (as we all do). Jane is inspirational – she receives knocks, she is caught in a changing world which is as hard for men as it is for women and she is, to some extent, a slave to fortune. But, through hard work, effort and internal struggle she develops into a competant and liberated young woman.
So – another win for Team Whipple. For the person on Svalbard, Persephone Books deliver. For Whipple-lovers, you won’t be disappointed.