High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Sob. High Wages has completed my reading of Dorothy Whipple’s novels. Bar coming across more short stories, or cheap copies of her autobiographical sketches, I have no more new words from Dorothy left to savour. This makes me very sad. However, I have ended on a high; High Wages is so good, I could hardly bear to put it down. I sat up until midnight two nights in a row because I didn’t want to leave the world of Jane Carter and her wonderful shop, so marvellously realised as it is on the pages.  This, her third novel, is somewhat different to her later, meatier, chunksters; this is no domestic family saga, and Jane is neither wife nor mother. High Wages is very much like Young Anne, her first novel, in that it explores the growth of a young girl and her fight for independence, though where Anne gives in to societal expectations and finds herself trapped in a limiting marriage, Jane positively shuns male attention for most of the novel and chooses to spend her time on building up her entrepreneurial talents. She is an invigorating heroine, whose determination and passion are inspiring. I was enthralled throughout, and not only by Jane’s story, but also by the story of the fast changing fashion and retail industries, and the changes in opportunities for women during the early years of the twentieth century.

The novel opens with Jane, a 19 year old orphan working in a haberdashers’,  finding herself forced to seek a live out position when her father dies, as her stepmother isn’t keen on keeping her under her roof.  When she sees that Chadwick’s, a high end haberdashers’ in the neighbouring town of Tidsley, has put up an advert for a shopgirl, her means of escape from her stepmother’s home appears obvious. Filled with excitement at such an opportunity, Jane presents herself and is accepted. She moves into a room above the shop that she shares with her fellow assistant, Maggie, and is deliriously happy as she begins learning her trade in the upmarket Chadwick’s. When Jane starts, it is 1912, and ‘ready-mades’ are only just coming onto the market. As such, everyone in Tidsley still buys fabric and trimmings to have their dresses made up by a dressmaker, and it is Jane’s excellent eye for the right fabric and trimmings to perfectly suit a customer that soon sees her becoming a favourite and bringing in a good income for the surly and stuck-in-his-ways Mr Chadwick.

When Mrs Greenwood, the local society leader, insists that Jane must be sacked due to a misunderstanding or Mr Chadwick will lose her custom, Jane’s skill and gumption enable her to convince Mr Chadwick that she makes more money for him than Mrs Greenwood pays in, and so she keeps her job. This victory gives her the confidence to keep pushing Mr Chadwick for more responsbility and opportunities to bring about change in the old fashioned shop, as she sees the changing methods of merchandising and the rapid rise of ready-mades revolutionising the department stores in the big cities Mr Chadwick never bothers to visit. The years pass and the war disrupts life, but Jane’s indomitable spirit carries on. She decides that she wants to open her very own shop, and when the opportunity arises, she is free to finally be her own boss. Her talent and good sense are able to give her the success she so deserves, but as she soon finds out, success comes at a price…

Oh! There is so much to rejoice about in this book, there really is. Firstly, there is the fascinating insight into the rapid changing of fashions in the Edwardian period. When Jane starts at Chadwick’s, the idea that anyone would buy ready made clothes was unthinkable. Women bought paper patterns, fabric and trimmings from the draper’s, and then had a seamstress make up their clothes to fit; over their corsets and stays, of course. There are so many different fabrics to choose from; crepe, gabardine, alpaca, cotton, silk…I was in raptures at imagining the bolts of shining fabric piled up around Jane and Maggie, with trimmings galore on display, ready to bring an outfit to life. The possibilities of dress when each piece you wore could be made exactly to your requirements; how wonderful the experience of choosing an outfit must have been! Jane’s instinctive eye for cut and colour and drape are what make her such a successful assistant, and when she strikes out into her own dress shop, selling exclusively ready mades, this eye again comes into good use as she sets off to Manchester and London on buying trips. She buys up quantities of sumptious fur coats, beautifully cut skirts, delicate, foamy blouses, and flowing dresses, all of which can’t fail to tempt the local ladies. As underwear became less restrictive, body shapes normalised, and women could buy clothes off the rail and instantly transform their appearance. Jane’s ability to recognise the change in women’s priorities and needs when it comes to fashion is what makes her such a success; unlike Mr Chadwick, who would rather hang on to the traditions of the past, she understands that women can’t go on being draped in layers of fabric and trimmings, trussed up like chickens in corsets and ribbons and crinolines. The clothes she chooses are deliberately simple and supple, embracing the wearer’s movements rather than restricting them. This taste reflects her own free spirit, independence and forward thinking attitude, and her inspirational, light hearted outlook on life encourages the women of Tidsley to branch out and move with the times along with her.

Secondly, Jane’s independence delighted me from the first page. Determined to make her own way in the world, and confident in her own abilities, Jane will not be kept down by the selfish and greedy Mr Chadwick. She knows her skills and she knows her worth, and she pushes to be able to use her talents to the utmost, and to be valued for the treasure she is. She has ambition and drive, and her passion for the retail industry and her joy in serving customers and helping them to make the right purchase is what spurs her on to success. However, she is no cold hearted career woman; she rejoices in the simple pleasures of nature, books, good meals, friendship, and her independence. She is greatly admired by others but her attractive personality and beautiful soul do lead her to be chased by men, who Jane resists with a fierceness that shows just how impossible it was for women at the time to pursue a career and marriage. Jane ultimately chooses her career over love, though it is not always an easy ride; she is a rare role model for the single woman and demonstrates that there is a lot more to happiness and self fulfilment than being part of a successful relationship.

All in all, this is a marvellous page turner of a book that allows a fascinating insight into the life of women and the changing face of Britain throughout the early part of the last century. I just adored it, and I also very much enjoyed Jane Brocket’s illuminating foreword (don’t read it until you’ve read the book, though!) that puts the novel firmly in context. If you’ve never tried Dorothy Whipple, this would be a perfect place to start.

ps. I hope you like my new look! I thought that as I’m changing my life, I might as well change my blog to match!

39 comments

  1. I always love it when a new review of yours pops up on my google reader! And despite being a bit put off by the Dorothy Whipple I tried (Every Good Deed), I’ve been thinking I really must try her again. This one sounds good and makes me think a bit of one of the short stories in Tea With Mr. Rochester, which is always good.🙂

    1. Oh thank you, Carolyn! That’s so lovely of you to say! Every Good Deed wasn’t the best for you to start with I don’t think – I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t show her brilliance as well as some of her others. High Wages would be a good place to try again, though it’s not a ‘typical’ Whipple; Someone at a Distance or They Were Sisters might suit you better. Oh really? I haven’t read Tea with Mr Rochester in years but I must revisit – I remember they were remarkably good.

  2. Hi, I have recently found your blog and just think its great. I now have a longer list of must reads. I have only just found Dorothy Whipple. Have read The Priory,just loved it. About to start They Knew Mr Knight. Have ordered High Wages from the net.I have found no old copies in this part of the world, in fact everywhere I go know ones heared of her.I will keep hunting.Thank you for starting me off on these great old Authors.

    1. Hi Merilyn! How lovely to see a new visitor! I’m so glad you’ve discovered Dorothy Whipple – she’s such a treat, isn’t she? I do envy you just starting out! I adored The Priory as well – They Knew Mr Knight is also wonderful, and I am sure you will adore High Wages. My personal favourite is Greenbanks but it’s still out of print and ridiculously hard to find. Old copies are few and far between here as well – hard to understand considering how popular she was during her own time! You are so welcome – I hope you find some more through my blog that you will come to love!🙂

  3. That was a good one to end on, Rachel …like you, I loved all the fabrics … and what a coincidence both of us coming to a Whipple-stop in the same week!
    I know you despise library books but you’re going to have to swallow your pride and get those two autobiographies. Just time before NY.

    1. Mary I was worried that High Wages was going to be a bit thin compared to her other novels and I’m so glad I wasn’t disappointed. I ended on a high, and a lovely one at that! It is a coincidence, isn’t it? Though I’m sorry you didn’t love your last Whipple as much as I did mine!

      I shall try…Chelsea library here I come!

  4. I still haven’t read any Whipple. Shocking state of affairs, I know. I’ve saving her for a winter treat (because that’s the sort of thing I do) but now I’m even more excited to start. I’ll take your sorrow as a warning and pace myself so I don’t blow through all her works too quickly!

    1. Oh, Claire! You can’t possibly leave it another DAY until you read a Whipple – once you start you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t get reading earlier! Pace the books nicely – intersperse the long ones with the shorter ones, and enjoy each one on its own merits, would be my advice. I hope you love her when you get going this winter – I suspect she will trigger a new love affair and you won’t be able to get enough!🙂

    1. It is, it is! This is one of the better ones, Diane. You must read a Dorothy Whipple, you simply must – there are so many great books out there, I know, but you don’t want to miss out on Dorothy!

  5. Oh I love all things Dorothy Whipple! High Wages was a lot of fun too. I can’t seem to find Greenbanks on any book seller site. Where did you get your copy? Do you know where I can get one?

    Love the new look by the way.

    1. We are kindred spirits, Astrid! Greenbanks is practically impossible to find and outrageously expensive. I don’t own a copy – it’s the only one I don’t have. I borrowed it from a reader who had an old edition and she borrowed my copy of Young Anne in exchange. I tried bidding on a rare copy that came up on ebay last week but I couldn’t afford it in the end.😦 All I can suggest is keeping checking the used book sites and ebay, but you’ll be lucky to get change of £40 for a copy from what I’ve seen.

      Thank you! It’s still a bit of a shock to me when I open up my blog but I am loving it!

  6. How sad that you have finshed Whipple. But you went out on a high note with High Wages. I loved the book for the same reasons you did. I love books about independent women. I am oddly drawn to them.

    1. I know, but I still have the biographies to track down, and more short stories…so the fun can continue, as long as I can unearth copies!I’m glad you also loved High Wages – books about independent women are wonderful, aren’t they? I like them much better than stories that are only happy endings because the girl ends up married. It makes me sad that a woman’s success in life is still judged on whether she is married or not, and I loved that Dorothy Whipple gave Jane a different though still happy ending than this usual fairytale one.

  7. Great review, it sounds like a really interesting book! I had never heard of Dorothy Whipple before today but I think I will have to buy one of her books to try it. Would the Priory be a good place to start, do you think? Or should I go for High Wages?

    1. Thanks Willa! It is a brilliant book and for more than just the story, too – as I have described!

      Never heard of Dorothy Whipple?! Then, my friend, you are in for such a treat! I personally love The Priory so I can highly recommend it as a good place to start, though others would probably say Someone at a Distance would be best. Read the descriptions on the Persephone website and see which one you fancy. If you want something a bit lighter and want to save the big ones for later, High Wages would be an excellent starting point, yes, though it’s not ‘typical’ of her usual novels in that it’s not a family based saga, which the others are. Hope that helps!

  8. I dont think as yet I have ever read all of one of my favourite authors books. I have finished a favourite series before, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes, and the great thing about that has been going back to them again and again and getting something new each time or just loosing myself in some of my favourite stories.

    1. I have read all of the Brontes and Jane Austen, but I do find myself usually keeping something back when I love an author as I can’t bear to finish. However all of DW’s books are so good I couldn’t resist reading them all – I didn’t want to wait any longer! Yes, revisiting familiar books is so wonderful, isn’t it? You find new things each time as you don’t have to worry about the plot. I love doing that with Jane Austen – Emma is especially fantastic to reread as you can see all the signs Emma misses better and better on each reread!

  9. How disappointing to have come to the end of Whipple’s work, Rachel. It’s always sad when we exhaust a writer’s back catalogue although there is the pleasure of rereading them. I eke out most of my favourite writers’ books, rationing them where I can (usually only when they are dead or have a small oeuvre), but often think I am depriving myself of pleasure and comfort by doing so.

    I have an orange Penguin edition of High Wages that I must read as so far I have only read two of her Persephones (Someone at a Distance and They Were Sisters).

    Nicola Beauman has said that someone should do their doctorate on Dorothy Whipple and you are in a very good position to be the one to do so – would you consider it at some point?

    1. I know! But also exciting because now it means I can read them all again in publication order and see how she developed as an author properly. I am looking forward to that! I am a rationer as well, especially when an author is dead, but Dorothy is an author that begs to be read and I couldn’r resist any more. You MUST read High Wages pronto as you have a copy – I’m sure you’d love it. And The Priory, and They Knew Mr Knight, and the short stories, and Greenbanks – if you can find it!

      Oh yes, I would love to do my PhD on Dorothy Whipple, absolutely love to. If someone wanted to fund me, I’d do it! I would also like to write her biography, and a critical study of her work. I would especially enjoy looking at her novels from the aspect of how they often are set twenty years or so before their publication date – it’s very interesting to read Dorothy’s take on how society changed in such a short period of time.

  10. I do indeed like your new look! It’s pretty! And I have not read Dorothy Whipple yet, but I am interested enough in clothes these days that this looks like a good one for me to start with–if my library has a copy. I like it when a book spends plenty of time involving the reader in the workish activities of the protagonist.

    1. Thanks Jenny! Another Dorothy virgin?! I can’t have this! You must read her and quickly – I’m sure you’d love High Wages – buy a copy immediately!

  11. Isn’t it sad when you come to the end of a favourite authors work! But now you get to go on to the next stage of revisiting, which is not the same as that amazing first time but is wonderful in its own way. And you’ve absolutely convinced me to add this to my own list by talking about a single woman making her independent way in the world.

    1. Yes! But as you say, the revisiting is just as exciting, as you see new things and can make connections that you couldn’t before. I know you will love this, Jodie! It’s perfect for a feminist.🙂

  12. Doesn’t it feel like such an accomplishment having finished all books by a fave author? I used to think it would be sad not being able to read any more but realized it’s as satisfying to revisit! I have only read Someone at a Distance but plan to read more by her! And yes, I love your new look very much.. the pink suits you.😀

    1. Yes, it really does! I like the feeling of completeness, and that excitement of knowing I can now go back and revisit! You must read more, Claire – I know you would love the gentle everyday beauty of her plots.🙂 Glad you like the new look!

  13. At your recommendation I lost my Whipple virginity with ‘Someone at a Distance’ and was immediately drawn in to her very clever and accurate account of a destructive young French woman and her effect on a whole family. I recognise so many little details of French life. Clever Dorothy!

    I’m looking forward to discovering more, although I may have to wait until I return to England to buy some or find copies in charity shops. They must be highly valued as even Amazon ‘used’ prices are higher than usual.

    Thanks for this enthusiastic and thoughtful review. You certainly know how to inspire!

    1. I’m so glad you gave her a try and loved her, Chrissy! It’s such a pleasure to know that my enthusiasm for her encouraged you to pick Someone at a Distance up.🙂

      Yes they aren’t cheap, and second hand copies certainly aren’t easy to come by, even here. I hope you can pick up some more copies when you come back to England! I actually found my first Dorothy in a charity shop, so you never know!

      Thank you so much – I’m so pleased you enjoyed the review!

  14. Well it’s about time! I was dying for you to read this book as I knew you would love it! Rejoice indeed…didn’t you just pump your fist for Jane standing up to that little wiener of a boss!

    There was a charming coziness to this one, a perfect book for reading whilst tucked up in bed…even at midnight.

    1. I was saving it, Darlene! I did! I was so happy when she went back and gave him what for…she’s my kind of girl!

      I know, I so loved it. I want to just go back and read it all over again now!

  15. A charming picture of Amy March on your banner, I must say. And I am dying to read Dorothy Whipple now! Her Jane sounds like my image for Mitzy…oh to be able to bring her to life like that!

    I recommended Book Snob to Bon for her thesis. Be prepared to answer lots of questions!

    1. Isn’t it just? I’m now desperate to track down a copy of the Jessie Willcox Smith illustrated version of Little Women but no luck yet! Yes…Jane is a fantastic feisty character – great inspiration for you!

      Oh wow! How exciting! I hope she asks me, I’d love to be part of her thesis!

  16. I have tried to get the Whipple books (any of them) and failed. I will now have to hope that an undiscovered gem lies awaiting me in my dusty second hand bookshop.

    1. Oh no, Mystica! I am so sad for you! Have you tried The Book Depository? They ship worldwide for free and they stock Persephone books. I long to find Whipples in dusty second hand book shops too, but it’s only happened to me once so I don’t hold out much hope anymore!

  17. I found my copy of High Wages a few years ago and it is an ex-library copy with very large print but I love it and re-read it every year. I also have quite tatty copies of Because of the Lockwoods and Greenbanks and I treasure them. My other Mrs Whipple books are all Persephone Editions. I haven’t read Young Anne, The Other Day or Random Commentary and so there’s lots to look forward to if they are ever re-published.

    1. Hi Jeanne! How lovely to find another Whipple fan! How lucky you are that you have Greenbanks…I am super jealous! There is still much to look forward to for me too – I am desperate to read her non fiction stuff and I am hoping that one day Persephone will reprint!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s