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!