Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance was the very first Persephone book I bought. I devoured it in a couple of days, enthralled by the story that unfolded before me. I felt like I knew all of the characters; I was so involved in their lives and so concerned for their welfare that it was almost impossible to extract myself from their world. It had been too long to remember since I had read such a novel, that was written with such empathy and humanity and understanding. It was the beginning of a love affair with Whipple, whose entire works I have now read. However, I realised last month, when browsing my bookshelves for something to curl up with, that it has now been seven years since I closed the pages of Someone at a Distance. Surely it was time to rediscover its beauty, and what a joy it was to find it unchanged in its brilliance. I found myself making excuses to go to bed early just so that I could immerse myself in the world of the Norths. It is a rare talent indeed that can have this effect; with no creative writing class tricks necessary, Whipple’s simple sophistication weaves a tale that is destined to never leave those who read it. This is a special novel; one that you can return to again and again to remind yourself of the truly important things in life – and in literature.

Someone at a Distance is the story of a family whose ordinary, contented life is torn apart by the arrival of a French woman, whose bitterness at the hand life has dealt her breeds a resentment so strong that she is determined to take happiness from all those who dare to possess it. Avery and Ellen North are a middle class home counties couple, living in a large and comfortable house with a paddock for a horse and sufficient rooms to dust to require two dailies from the village. Avery is handsome and charming with a highly paid job as a publisher, but at heart he is a family man, with a special affection for his teenage daughter Anne, whose letters to him from her boarding school are his most treasured possession. Ellen’s life revolves around her home and her children. She adores gardening and loves the quiet, comfortable routines of her day; chatting with the dailies, greeting the postman, calling the fishmonger to discuss the lunch and sharing all of her news with Avery as they lie in bed of an evening. Neither Ellen nor Avery aspire to greatness; their happiness lies in one another and their children, and the all consuming business of the daily clockwork of ordinary life has swept them along with, as Jane Austen would say, very little to distress or vex them throughout the years of their married life.

That is, until Avery’s mother, lonely since the death of her husband and bitter at Ellen and Avery’s self sufficiency, advertises for a girl to keep her company. Louise Lanier, living with her shopkeeper parents in a stiflingly provincial French backwater, and recently heartbroken at being jilted by her lover for a richer and more socially acceptable partner, answers old Mrs North’s advert, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. Arriving at old Mrs North’s sumptuous house, she is impressed with her wealth, and even more impressed with her handsome son. She is disgusted with Ellen, who makes no effort to look attractive or beguiling, but yet has somehow still managed to snag such a catch as Avery, with seemingly no appreciation of how lucky she is. Louise can’t bear the happy family life she is forced to live amongst, and she soon sets her eyes on Avery as the prize she believes she deserves. With Ellen oblivious to the danger in her midst, Louise begins a campaign of seduction, and even Avery is surprised at how quickly he succumbs to Louise’s charms.

I had forgotten how much of the novel is not about Louise actually seducing Avery, or being with the Norths; much of the story is, unusually for Whipple, set in France (the only other novel of hers that is not wholly set in England is Because of the Lockwoods, which also has a section set in France). We are welcomed into the lives of Louise’s well meaning, simple hearted and loving parents, who keep the stationery shop in their small town. We see Louise’s peers; dowdy young women whose preoccupation is their husbands and homes, and we also see Paul, the only man Louise has ever really loved, who left her for a sweet and suitable woman whose happiness in marriage is a dagger to Louise’s heart. In this small town, where everyone knows one another and there is a clear social divide between the likes of the Laniers and those of the wealthier bourgeoisie, Louise is a fish out of water, looked down upon as the ‘stationer’s daughter’ and pitied for being still unmarried in her late twenties.

While Louise is undoubtedly a cold and selfish woman, she is also deeply disappointed and hurt by a life that has not delivered on its promises. With refined tastes and sensibilities, she has had few opportunities to meet likeminded people, and her frustration at being unable to have an outlet for her dreams has warped her personality, making her hard and bitter. Paul’s rejection of her thanks to her father’s lowly status is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He is really the ‘Someone at a Distance’ and the reason for the break up of Ellen and Avery’s comfortable existence hundreds of miles away. Louise, tormented by Paul and his wife’s happiness being thrust in her face at every opportunity, wants to show them and everyone else in her hometown that she can be a success; that she is better than the shopkeeper’s daughter they all dismiss her as. She wants recognition and she wants to be the object of jealousy rather than the one looking on with envy. The more I read of Louise’s life in France, the more I grew to understand and pity her. Rather than the villain I saw her as last time, I recognised in her the fear and sadness that afflicts many twenty somethings. Fear of loneliness, of insignificance, of failure; all of these are real, painful and incredibly damaging. They can often lead people to make foolish decisions and hurt other people, and rather than hating Louise, I felt sorry for her by the end. After all, she will never have what she wants. She will never know true happiness. I don’t think there’s anything more pitiable than that.

Of course I also felt sorry for Ellen, and there is a profundity in that moment when her perfectly safe, ordinary and uneventful life collapses beneath her. Only then does she realise how happy she was, and how happy she will never be again. Whipple so perfectly captures that devastation, that ripping of the fabric of life. So many of us think our lives are dull and are constantly striving for something more, without ever stopping to realise that actually we have everything we need to be happy; health, families, friends, homes, incomes, food, books, hobbies. In my opinion, the true joy of life is in its humdrum quality; that reassurance that tomorrow will come and be probably just as comfortably uneventful as today. We might hope and dream for more excitement, but we’d never want it at the cost of losing one of the keystones that underpins our entire existence, all of which we take completely for granted until they’re threatened. In Someone at a Distance, Whipple demonstrates how quickly and easily life can become a nightmare, and how much we rely on for our happiness is fallible, transitory and breakable. Ellen might create a new life for herself and Anne, and find a new kind of happiness in independence and her work, but she will never recapture that unthinking innocence of her married life with Avery. She will never be able to take anything for granted again, and that breaking of her trust in life is probably the true tragedy of the novel.

Avery is a pathetic character, and I don’t want to talk about him. He didn’t interest me; it was Louise who mainly captured my attention this time around. Many people who have discussed Someone at a Distance have called her a femme fatale, writing her off as a malevolent presence who will do anything to destroy others for her own gain. However, now I’ve read the book twice and have had a chance to mull over it, I can’t agree. There’s a reason why Whipple takes us to France so frequently; she wants to give us a balanced view. She wants us to understand Louise’s background and what she has experienced to make her who she has become. Louise is a twentieth century Madame Bovary, a woman who has been promised more than life can offer her, and who is looking for someone to blame for her resulting unhappiness. Yes, she causes a lot of damage, but she is also incredibly damaged herself, and Whipple’s sensitivity and skill as a novelist is demonstrated in her ability to make Louise such a three dimensional character.

This is an endlessly fascinating and absorbing novel, that gave me enormous amounts to think about, and had me swinging up and down in my sympathies throughout. If you haven’t read it, you must; on balance, I think it’s definitely Whipple’s most successful novel from a literary point of view, and is probably one of the finest portraits of the damage thwarted dreams can wreak that I have ever read. This is much more than the domestic drama it at first appears, and offers the reader a rich and thought provoking slice of twentieth century life. Not to be missed.

On Timeless Novels

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation for teaching it to a class this half term. I last read it when I was a teenager, and remember being enchanted by the beautiful descriptions of the faded small town of Maycomb, the closeness between Jem, Scout and the wonderful Atticus and the childish games of Jem, Scout and Dill and their obsession with the mysterious figure of Boo Radley. I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the terrible events of the novel; the awful treatment of Tom Robinson, the casual racism of the characters and the frightening behaviour of the Ewells. This was a world that was both a children’s paradise and the stuff of nightmares; the innocence of the young is so cleverly juxtaposed with the often disturbing and upsetting realities of adult life. As Jem and Scout grow up and understand with increasing maturity the actions and decisions of the adults around them, their interests and habits change as they realise life is not a playground, and things are not always fair. The success of this novel is not just in its unflinching and – for its time – daring portrayal of the prejudice and cruelty that many adults show towards others who are different to themselves, but also in its timeless portrayal of childhood and the way innocence is slowly stripped away as we age, the realities of the adult world gradually encroaching upon the boundaries of the playground until they can no longer be ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often described as ‘timeless’, despite its very specific historical and cultural setting, and reading it has also made me think of what other novels can truly be called timeless, and whether there are hidden treasures that deserve this title and have unjustly fallen out of favour. For example, I am currently reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Before Persephone republished Whipple, she had been out of print for half a century, totally forgotten and doomed to languish as a mere footnote in 20th century literary history. And yet, when you read her books, you are transported into a world that is both wonderfully antiquated and startlingly familiar. Ellen in Someone at a Distance is forever rushing around, with never enough time in the day to get things done. She is cook, cleaner, mother and wife; if she’s not driving someone somewhere, she’s at the shops; if she’s not cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. Perpetually busy, perpetually the lowest priority; married, single, mother or childless, all women can relate to this role of constant frenetic activity to fit it all in.

Louise Lanier is a femme fatale, and her cold and somewhat calculating personality certainly leaves something to be desired. However, her boredom with small town life, her longing for something more, her love of beautiful things and her desire to be noticed and appreciated are aspects of character and situation that are completely universal. Reading how she feels about being trapped in her home town, living with her parents while watching her friends marry and build successful adult lives struck a loud chord with me; so many young adults go through the fear of being left behind and the frustration of feeling stifled in a life they have outgrown. And what of Avery, tempted and flattered by the attention received from a younger woman? Can we really blame him for a lack of willpower, when we all fall down in this respect from time to time? Someone at a Distance‘s sensitively and beautifully written portrayal of relationships and desires is astounding and timeless in its understanding of human nature, and yet it has not, and never will, reach the heights of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fame. Why not? Is it, perhaps, too class conscious? Too domestic in its focus? Lacking a wider societal view? Perhaps, but these descriptions could all be applied to Jane Austen’s novels too, and hers are certainly considered to be timeless. So what is the criteria for a timeless novel, I wonder?

When I think of the timeless classic I most often turn to for entertainment and inspiration, Jane Eyre comes most vividly to mind. I love the character of Jane; plain, penniless, with no relations and no one to care for her, she makes her own way in the world out of sheer self discipline, will power and faith that something better is to come. A lack of love does not stop her from loving; a lack of compassion does not stop her from extending compassion and forgiveness to others. She does not seek revenge for the wrongs done to her, nor does she sink under the repeated difficulties of her circumstances. She stands for what is greatest in the human spirit: resilience. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre gives us a model of what it is to be human, and reminds us of the tremendous force for good that is within all of us. It might be written in a didactic style, with a fair few dodgy coincidences and a good deal of gothic melodrama, but the story transcends the conventions of its period through its ability to capture an essential truth and inspire and encourage its readers to fulfil their potential, no matter what hurdles they may face.

Perhaps this is it, then; timelessness is not just about being able to relate to the experiences of the characters, but by being moved, encouraged and inspired by their fates. A timeless novel is not one that merely explores the human condition, but that leaves us with a desire to become better people, to grow in self discipline, in courage, in kindness, and in understanding. Timeless stories are those that stay with us because they mean something vital. They inspire us to be more than we are, and remind us of all we could be. I think the novel I have read most recently that is a truly neglected timeless classic has to be Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. In its magnificent and ambitious exploration of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of a corner of pre war Yorkshire, it reveals the essential goodness of humanity, and the need for each and every one of us to live our lives with passion, courage and hope. It moved me to tears, and the night I finished reading it was the night I finally decided to face my fears and apply for teacher training. It showed me what I could be capable of, and made me dare to believe that I too had the potential to make a difference to other people’s lives. The power of the written word is not something to be underestimated, and those words that are truly timeless are those that give us a vision of the greatness that is within our reach, if only we would rise up and grab for it.

So, perhaps there are two types of timeless novels; those that have a universality of experience, such as those of the unjustly neglected Dorothy Whipple, and Jane Austen; and those that inspire and move us in their portrayal of the potentiality of the human spirit, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. The character of Atticus Finch has to be one of the greatest in literature; his compassion, understanding and courage are heart melting as well as inspirational. What makes him resonate so strongly with so many people is because he is an everyman; he is not wealthy, he is not overly handsome, and he doesn’t have a particularly charmed or interesting life. He lives in a rural backwater, alone with his children in a town where nothing happens. His days are uneventful, filled with the petty arguments of his uneducated neighbours and the trials and tribulations of parenting two lively children. What elevates Atticus into the extraordinary is simply his strength of character; he makes a stand against what he knows to be wrong, daring to fly in the face of the accepted social norms of his town. He is prepared to risk everything in order to do the right thing. Atticus requires nothing to do this but the resources he has inside of himself. Reading his story, we can believe that we too could be capable of doing the same thing, should we be called upon to do so; we don’t need any material trappings or heaps of brain cells to be able to emulate Atticus’ example. All we need to do is summon our courage, and raise our heads above the parapet. If Atticus, a thoroughly ordinary man, can do it, so can we. It’s the same with Jane Eyre; she has nothing that we don’t have; in fact, in many cases, she has a good deal less. Nothing but our own fear can prevent us from demonstrating her bravery, and if someone with as few opportunities and options as Jane can overcome her fears to leave everything she knows behind to strike out on her own, then we certainly can.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on timeless novels, and to know what books you turn to time and time again. My recent run of disappointing reading has made me hanker for books that are truly special, and that will leave me feeling moved and inspired. I am adoring my re-read of Someone at a Distance, and I want to follow it up with something of an equal quality, so any reading inspiration that can be offered would be much appreciated!

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I hit the jackpot on Charing Cross Road, scooping up a lovely copy of Dorothy Whipple’s autobiography of her childhood, The Other Day, for an absolute song. I have been looking for this book for years, and have never seen a copy for less than three figures (which is absurd), so to say I was thrilled is an understatement! Since finishing her novels last year, I have felt rather bereft without any new Dorothy to discover, so reading this was pure pleasure from beginning to end. In this charming and evocative look at her childhood, Whipple takes us back to Edwardian Lancashire and into the world of a curious and inventive little girl. Her keen insight and eye for domestic detail is just as rich and vivid as in her novels, as is the often bittersweet nature of ordinary life, with its simple pleasures and quiet tragedies all going on behind the doors of respectable middle class suburbia.

The Other Day is told in a series of vignettes that range from pre school age up to the early teenage years. In all of them, Whipple’s family loom large. Her mother, Ada, was a sensible, practical and loving woman who encouraged her daughter’s independence and literary interests. Her father was a kind and adventurous man, an architect by trade, and a caring and involved parent who was amused by Dorothy’s frequent escapades. Her brothers were largely background noise, people to kick under tables and fight with. Perhaps most prominent were her grandmother, a kind and wise figure of love and understanding, who always had ginger biscuits on the kitchen sideboard and plenty of books for Dorothy to curl up and read in peace and quiet, and Kate, the family servant, whose brusque and bustling manner hid a deep love for the family she had come to adopt as her own. The Stirrups (Whipple was her married name) were middle class, living in a succession of nice houses in prosperous Lancashire towns, where everybody knew everybody else and there was always a family member living just around the corner. Dorothy and her brothers could go outside and play all day without a care in the world, and from a young age they were trusted to walk to and from school by themselves. The children wanted for nothing, though they were certainly not spoilt, and the whole atmosphere of the book is one of a safe warmth that ensured a feeling of being loved and protected.

Perhaps because of this environment of secure happiness that was the background of her childhood, the memories Whipple mainly recalls are of times of trouble or worry. Early in the book, she describes the confusion and distress she experienced on the night her beloved baby sister died; the sound of muffled tears, the fear and sadness on the faces of adults, the closed doors and running feet, the lack of any explanation. She perfectly captures the helplessness of a small child caught up in an adult drama, unable to understand what has happened but painfully aware that something dreadful they have no power to change or stop has taken place. Another time of anxiety was when she had to take the trip across town to a Convent to sit her music exam; the trivial worries of childhood are perfectly described. Dorothy doesn’t worry so much about the actual exam, but rather about not getting off at the right tram stop, not knowing which door to go through when she reaches the Convent, and whether or not she will get any lunch. One of my favourite memories is the delight Dorothy took in making a Christmas present for her brothers; thinking up the concept, collecting the bits and pieces to make it, the pent up secret delight in the prospect of seeing them open it and treasure it as much as she did, all built up to bursting point on Christmas morning, when she proudly presented her brothers with the gift she had spent so long making. Their indifference towards it was crushing. I remember many such efforts of my own being received in a less than grateful spirit by my siblings, and I felt little Dorothy’s pain acutely.

It’s not all bad memories, though, of course; there are countless wonderful moments of long, peaceful afternoons basking in the warm love of her grandmother, gleeful playtimes in sun dappled fields with school friends, mornings spent in a flour clouded kitchen, baking bread in quiet companionship with her mother, weekend outings to the country, guilty night time cuddles with her baby brother – all lovely and touching reminiscences from a childhood that was perfectly ordinary, yet also unique and special in its own way. What I found most interesting about reading this was what an adult self remembers of their childhood. When I try and look back over my own, I too only remember snapshots; the smell of the conifer trees at the end of the garden, the seemingly endless hot summers spent splashing in the blue tarpaulin paddling pool we filled up with freezing water from the garden hose, climbing trees in the park with my best friend, sitting with my brother and sister under the dining room table that had been made into a cave by draping a bed sheet over it, crying uncontrollably when my primary school teacher shouted at me for my messy handwriting, the triumph of being the star of the school play, the anger and frustration of being sent to my room for something my brother had done and which had been blamed on me. None of these memories are particularly significant or important, but for some reason they remain vivid, while others have faded. Often my sister or my brother will ask ‘do you remember when…’ and I will try and grasp for the memory, but fail to find it. Why have they retained that memory of a shared experience, while I haven’t?

Why did Dorothy Whipple remember certain events, and how and why did she choose to write about the particular ones she does? Memoirs and memories always raise these interesting questions, and that is why I find them so fascinating to read. What we choose to remember is quite telling of who we are as people, I think, and while The Other Day might be about Whipple’s childhood, it also says a lot about the adult she was, and the writer she was too. She shows in this, as well as in her novels, that it is the little things that make up a life, the insignificant nothings of everyday existence that form who we are. I do very much hope that this will be reprinted one day. It’s marvellous.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Persephone’s other new novel for the Autumn/Winter is Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks. I’ve read it and reviewed it before, and I said then that Greenbanks was my favourite Persephone so far. Now, having read them all, my position still hasn’t changed; Greenbanks, despite being only her second novel (written in 1932) is, in my opinion, the best and most representative of her skills as a novelist. Spanning the lives of three generations of the Ashton family, from the early 19th century to the 1920s, its tenderness and gentle perception of humanity are moving, illuminating and so true, and the characters are completely absorbing. I could hardly bear to close the pages when I finally got to the end, and I was left in awe of how fine an author Whipple is. I’m so glad that this will now be easily available.

Louisa Ashton is the centre of Greenbanks; in her fifties, she lives in the eponymous large, comfortable house in the nondescript Northern town of Elton with her husband Robert and three of her adult children. Three more have flown the nest; Thomas and Rose are married and live with their spouses and children far from home, but Letty, married to Ambrose, has settled just a few yards away. As her own children have grown older and away from her, Louisa’s opportunities to lavish her maternal love are dwindling, and she is entering a phase of her life where she is feeling largely role-less. Into the breach steps Rachel, Letty’s young daughter, and it is the unwavering bond between grandmother and granddaughter in a rapidly changing world that forms much of the narrative arc of the novel.

This is a character heavy novel, and there is a large and intriguing cast of children, children in law, grandchildren and family acquaintances who all vie to control Louisa’s attention, affections and actions. The dynamic between Louisa’s adult children regarding who ‘deserves’ their mother’s leniency and efforts is especially expertly drawn. After Louisa’s errant husband Robert dies, Ambrose, Letty’s overbearing, staid husband who believes he knows best in all circumstances, takes over the running of Louisa’s finances and also steps into the role of head of the family, directing the futures of his wife’s siblings as well as his mother in law. Everything has to be done his way, and his total blindness to how he is smothering the spirits of everyone around him in his pursuit of perfection is brilliantly portrayed.

There are so many competing plots and characters that it is impossible for me to mention them all; one I do want to mention is Whipple’s exploration of the changing role and expectations of women. Louisa’s marriage was a failure; she married Robert as a teenager in the late 1800s and lived a life of a typical Victorian wife. She turned a blind eye to his infidelities, ran his house and brought up his children; passion, fulfilment and equality never came into it. In a rapidly changing world, Louisa’s daughters expect more than that, but Letty certainly doesn’t have it; her constant longing to escape, to be by herself and not have her life directed to her by a man she feels no passion for, is incredibly poignant. Letty’s sister Laura throws over her fiance after a silly argument and marries a rich man she despises for a position and a home of her own, but she soon realises her mistake and becomes desperately unhappy.

Laura is more daring than Letty and manages to make a life on her own terms, but Letty spends hers unfulfilled, lonely and pushed into a corner by a man who believes that his way of achieving happiness must be everybody’s. Alongside these women is the story of Kate Barlow, whose early fling with a married man and consequent illegitimate pregnancy and banishment from society has haunted her all of her life. As time moves on and standards and expectations change, her shame begins to become irrelevant to a new generation, and the attitudes Louisa’s contemporaries had about marriage and fidelity and expectations of life for women are radically upturned by their children and grandchildren. Whipple’s quietly feminist unfurling of the limitations of women’s lives and the cage marriage could so often be for those who made unwise decisions is fascinating, revealing and very moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into these women’s lives and sharing in their struggles to find their own ways towards a personal sense of freedom.

For a largely uneventful novel that records the slow passing of time and day to day thoughts and feelings of an extended family group, Greenbanks is full of happenings, and as such it is rich and wonderfully dense, like a fruitcake. Life is not easy for the characters; there is sorrow, heartache and pain; but there is also much everyday joy in the simple pleasures of life and in the love shared between mothers and their children. Louisa is a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion, and Rachel is the epitome of glowing, straining, eager youth, sprinting ahead into a bright future. Greenbanks is a place of safety, an unchanging hub from which Louisa rules with a soft hand and a warm heart over the children she both loves and struggles to understand, and never stops wanting happiness for. It is ‘home’ in the true sense of the word, and despite all of the change and sadness and struggle its inhabitants face, it remains true, much like Louisa. This is a beautiful evocation of the power of motherly love and the skill and devotion involved in creating a home that welcomes and soothes children even when they have become parents themselves, and every time I read a Whipple I find it terribly sad that she didn’t have children herself, as she seems to understand the qualities of mothering exceptionally well.

Greenbanks is a chronicle of a family’s life, but it is also a chronicle of English life, and how it changed so much between the turn of the century and the end of WW1. As horizons widened, expectations and attitudes expanded, and types like Ambrose became obsolete. Women like Letty knew they could have more, and girls like Rachel could dream of a future where marriage was not a curse, but a blessing to be enjoyed alongside many other aspects of a full life. It’s such a quietly, powerfully beautiful novel that is a commentary on motherhood, relationships, the nature of home, marriage, self awareness, suffering, happiness and grace, and I just found it completely and utterly absorbing. It is a magical, wonderful novel that lingers with you for a long time after the pages have closed, so tight do its characters weave their way around your heart. This is writing as its finest, and most touching; it gets to the core of life, and affirms its beauty and worth and potential. It really is something quite special, and you must read it. My grateful thanks go to Persephone for sending this to me for review – from today it is available to purchase, so please go and put your orders in now!

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!