Thursday, 15 April 2010

"Experience doth take dreadfully high wages..."

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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.'

Well, quite.

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.


10 comments:

  1. I haven't read any Whipple yet, but I have a copy of Someone at a Distance in the mail enroute to me right now. Glad to know I'm starting in the right place!

    Reading the Persephone description, I'm not sure I'd want to be known as a 'serviceable' writer...A bit like damning with faint praise.

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  2. I just reviewed this last week! I enjoyed it too though I don't think it's her best novel. I've read most of them except for Greenbanks. My favourite is still the first one I read which is They Were Sisters.

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  3. Lovely review Simon! I am such a fan of Whipple and I read this before Persephone republished as a result of coming to Whipple through Persephone.

    And thanks for mentioning our week - looking forward to ti!

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  4. Oh I think they will indeed have you back! I am not, despite your excellent post, likely to take up Whipple myself.

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  5. Oh how I would love a Persephone reading group in my community! There are so many things you could say but that would be ruining it for others. The social mores of the time alone would take up an hour of discussion!

    I really enjoyed this book and that passage about the tea reminds me it's time for another cup!

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  6. Thank you for the link, Simon.

    I picked up a Penguin first edition of High Wages recently and hope to read it soon (for or during Persephone Reading Week, I am as yet undecided about).

    I highly recommend that you read The Were Sisters when you can as, like Someone at a Distance, it is a raw evocation of domestic (familial) emotion and exploration of marriage.

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  7. I have Someone at a Distance (I believe it was the first Persephone I acquired), but I still haven't gotten around to reading it. I'm doing a nice job acquiring Persephones, but a terrible job getting them read. And I'm afraid I won't be able to resist acquiring one or two more when I'm in London and can finally visit the shop in person!

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  8. Oh, thank you. I, like others, have Someone at a Distance waiting for me for the Persephone reading week, and am now looking forward to it even more. I've been traveling for the last week, and am off again soon -- I've been missing keeping up with everybody.
    How are ya'll doing over there in all that volcanic smoke?

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  9. It is interesting how this book has been "marketed"--I guess Persephone wants to let readers know this is a worthy read without being her best--interesting wording in any case. I have yet to read any Whipple, but I think I'm going to have to read Someone at a Distance (though may start ahead of the reading week as I tend to be a slow reader). I also have The Priory, too.

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  10. Excellent review Simon. I loved Someone At A Distance, but I'm not particularly interested in reading more Whipple. Love that cover.

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