Review by Sylvia D. High Wages is one of Dorothy Whipple’s early novels. It was first published in 1930 and was republished by Persephone in 2009 and the quotes in my review are taken from this edition. The title comes from an old saying; ‘Experience doth take dreadfully high wages, but she teaches like none other.’
The novel plots the story of Jane Carter who, when the reader first meets her in 1912, is seventeen years old and on the point of leaving home. Her father has died and she is at loggerheads with her stepmother.
Jane finds work in draper’s shop in the town of Tidsley which is said to be based loosely on Preston. (Whipple was born in Blackburn.) Chadwick’s is one of those old-fashioned shops with rows of little drawers and eiderdowns and curtain material hanging from the ceiling whilst Jane
was conscious of a smell of cotton and woollen stuffs, of a counter to right and a counter to left, a small oil-stove giving out smell without heat, and a headless dummy exhibiting a pink ripple-cloth dressing-gown on its incredible bosom. (p 10).
Jane and the other assistant, Maggie Pye, live in as did so many shop assistants at the time and Whipple paints a grim picture of their mean living conditions, long hours and low wages, a theme explored by other contemporary writers such as Gissing and Bennett.
The shop’s clientele are amusingly portrayed, particularly the local millowner’s wife, Mrs Greenwood, a large, autocratic woman with a correspondingly loud voice, and her daughter, Sylvia, a very beautiful but empty-headed young woman. Introducing Sylvia allows Whipple to explore another contemporary social issue, that of the unmarried, middle-class daughter who has nothing to do except polish her social graces, dance attendance on her mother, go shopping and wait for marriage:
Sylvia came to the end of the illustrated papers. She yawned and looked out of the windows. There was nothing to look at there but the garden she had looked at for nineteen years. She yawned again until the tears came into her eyes . . . The ornate clock supported by a simpering shepherd pair struck three, It struck lightly, and cheerfully, but Sylvia sighed at it. Three o’clock, when you have nothing to do, is the dull herald of a still duller hour. (pp 41-42.)
Jane is good at her job and popular with the customers but when she falls out with Maggie over a young man, Wilfrid who works at the local library and introduces Jane to books, she leaves and with the financial support of Mrs Briggs, the homely wife of the co-millowner, sets up on her own. Her knowledge of the trade, her visits to Kendal’s in Manchester and her move into selling ready-made clothes guarantee her growing success.
At this point the novel, having been a vehicle for the exploration of some of the issues that were taxing women’s rights campaigners at the time, becomes a love story and in my opinion goes downhill. Jane falls for Sylvia’s handsome, solicitor husband, Noel Yarde who has discovered that his wife bores him, and in turn falls for the feisty Jane. Their relationship develops to the point where they are planning to run away together whereupon it seems that Whipple suddenly realises that she mustn’t upset her market by carrying through something so radical. Instead she engineers a situation whereby Noel realises he cannot leave his wife and son: ‘I’m done for, you know, Jane. I’m here for life. They all depend on me now. In all sorts of way.’ (p309)
A devastated Jane, accepting that Noel has to do his duty, reflects on the way one’s lot can change:
How strange life was with its ebbings and flowings, its fluctuations, its inexplicable movements towards and away from .. . (p 315).
At a crossroads herself, she sells her shop and goes off to London where the faithful Wilfrid, who has lost an arm fighting in the First World War, is waiting for her.
For anyone interested in the history of shopping, and particularly clothes shopping, this novel is particularly interesting and Whipple is excellent at using dress to portray social status. Whilst she tackles various social issues of the time she does so in an unjudgemental way and whilst she tells a good ‘rags to riches’ story, I found the book rather lightweight. It would be interesting to read one of her later novels to see if they have more depth.