On the off chance that you’ll have me back, after Mel and Dark Puss have proved me completely dispensable over the past month, I’m going to turn my hand to another book review! And this time it’s a Persephone book, which always curries favour. I am getting a little ahead of myself, what with Persephone Reading Week coming up around the corner, but I thought it would cheating to review this then, since I actually finished it in the middle of March.
Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages (1930) is the latest Whipple novel to be published by Persephone and the third that I’ve read – the other two being the very wonderful Someone at a Distance and the pretty wonderful They Knew Mr. Knight. [edit: I forgot that I’ve also read Greenbanks, but don’t remember much about it…] High Wages focuses on Jane Carter, who takes a job working for Mr. Chadwick who runs a draper’s shop in Tidsley. She’s doing it on account of a stepmother, but we don’t think about her much after the first chapter, and she only really acts as a catalyst for what follows. Jane enters the politics of a small town and a small shop, dealing with the meanness of her employers, the lovesickness of her colleague Maggie, and the quiet friendship of poor-wife-made-good Mrs. Briggs.
Persephone’s write-up of the novel is very interesting, far more than just description of the book, and I recommend you give it a read by clicking here. They include this thought:She is not, of course, a ‘great’ writer. You could not take one of her sentences, as you can with, say, Mollie Panter-Downes, and hold it up to the light. But she is serviceable, perceptive and humane.I agree on all counts – while Whipple’s prose is a cut above a lot of her contemporaries (and almost everything I flick through in the bookshop now) she isn’t a notable stylist. She even veers towards the saccharine or predictable on occasion in this novel (though not in the other two I’ve read) – I definitely blame the romance plot, which High Wages could have done without, and would have been a better novel for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Whipple’s publisher leant on her to include it… but it just got a little silly towards the end. (Query: is it possible to write the dialogue of people desperately and recklessly in love without sounding like a mediocre soap opera? Then again, I’m quite fond of mediocre soap operas…)
That aside, there is plenty to love. How could you not like a book with the following sentiment? :Oh, the comfort of that first cup of tea! The warmth and life it put into you! They held their hands round the cups to warm them and their eyes looked less heavily on the bleak kitchen.
‘What do we do now?’ asked Jane.
‘We have another cup of tea, said Maggie’The day-to-day runnings of the shop make excellent material for a novel, and that’s what I enjoyed most in High Wages – the hierarchies in the shop and those of the customers, and how Jane negotiates them. Such is the minutiae that Whipple does so well, and so perceptively.
An interesting sideplot is the maid Lily and her abusive husband. That sounds very gritty, but Whipple has a way of taking gritty plots and making them pretty cosy… And I do have a weakness for dialect-driven, unselfconscious servants in interwar novels – the best being Nellie in another Persephone, Cheerful Weather For The Wedding. For a taste of Nellie, click here – otherwise, back to Lily:
Lily arrived. She whimpered as she lit the fire, and as Jane reappeared at intervals in the kitchen, she told her Bob wasn’t like a husband at all.
‘Aren’t you going to love me a bit I says to ‘im this morning, and ‘e says with such a nasty look, “To ‘ell with you and your love.” Just like that.’
And when she tried to kiss him good-bye, he’d thrown a plate at her.
‘Whatever do you want to kiss him for?’ asked Jane, squeezing out the wash-leather for the shop-door glass. ‘Throw a plate back at him, my goodness.’
She thought she herself would make short work of such a husband.
‘No…’ Lily shook her head as she dipped the bald brush into the blacklead. ‘I couldn’t do that. Bad as ‘e is, I love ‘im. Besides, it’s me as ‘as to pay for the plate.’
Throughout High Wages there is fairly strong divide between rich-bad-people and the ‘onest-‘umble-poor. Mrs. Briggs bridges the divide – in that she’s rich, but always harks back to the simpler times before her husband (whose name I forgot, but which I presume is Alfred or Albert; this sort of man is always called one of the two) got rich. I did find that all a little tedious… but that’s a small quibble. And is really mentioned as way of bringing up rich-bad-Sylvia, and this amusing description of her:
Sylvia, poor child, hadn’t a grain of humour in her composition. Not what he called humour. She didn’t like Punch. That was his test. She laughed at hats sometimes, but he couldn’t remember that she ever laughed at anything else.
All in all, High Wages is an enjoyable novel, though not one I think Persephone would have reprinted had it been Whipple’s only novel. I recommend you start with Someone at a Distance, if you’ve never read a Whipple novel before – but High Wages doesn’t do any damage to the credentials of Persephone’s most popular discovery.