Sateens, foulards, kippers, and pence: High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Dear Reader:

Another week, another Whipple!  So far, I’ve read Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and loved them both.  And now:

A Persephone edition of #175) High Wages.  This is the story of Jane Carter, a young woman fleeing her stepmother and hordes of step-siblings.  She is seeking success and happiness.  Whipple published the book in 1930 but set the story in 1912.  It runs into the early post WWI twenties.

Jane is a wonderful protagonist: intelligent, ambitious, stymied, and skilled.  She takes a position in a larger town with Chadwick’s draper shop (I gather a draper shop of this era of handmade clothes sold fabric and trimmings and also made recommendations as to combinations and patterns).  Mr. Chadwick oversees the shop with the assistance of Maggie Pye (another shopgirl and Jane’s roommate in the upstairs lodging) and Lily (a cleaner).  Jane quickly gains the appreciation of the town’s women with her sharp eye for clothes.  Business booms, particularly with the advent of WWI.  Sadly, Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick are penny-wise and pound-foolish, failing to show appreciation for Jane, shorting her commissions, stealing her food rations, and stinting her kippers (although Mr. Chadwick is very aware that Jane is responsible for the uptick in his business).

The Greenwoods are local elite with Sylvia, the spoiled daughter, and Mrs. Greenwood, a pushy lady with a high self-opinion.  Mrs. Briggs is Jane’s friend married to Mr. Greenwood’s business partner and uncomfortable with her new wealth.  Wilfred Thompson, a librarian, and Noel Yarde, a local hunk, fill out the key characters.  The story takes Jane through her highs and lows, love and loss, testing her mettle and showing her strengths.  As the preface by Jane Brockett notes (and similar to Greenbanks) the book is a wealth of information about dry goods of the days, filled with tidbits about fabrics, styles, and trimmings.  I enjoyed this a lot and poked around online finding out the nature of these fabrics.

Jane is a wonderful heroine: bright, hellbent determined, and honorable, although not perfect.  It is also fascinating to learn how a business woman of the era would have struggled to make her way through a world of men.  As with all of Whipple’s books, the women are strong, but torn between love, betrayal, and success and at the mercy of social forces and intimates who don’t always have their best interest at heart.  This book is a bit more of a romp (although it has its sad moments) than the other two I read and it might be a great book with which to start a new Whipple reader.  Unfortunately, Whipple was not nearly as prolific as Trollope – although (according to Nicola Beauman’s of [Persephone Books] Whipple assessment here I still have 5 more Whipple novels, 3 books of short stories, and an autobiography left to read (and 45 of Trollope’s)- I definitely wish she’d written more (wait, wasn’t that a recent meme that I couldn’t answer at the time?  What writer do you wish had written one more book?).  If you haven’t yet tried Whipple, this is a great place to start!  Also, see After Tea Cotton Town’s online provision of Nicola’s assessment and “After Tea” one of Whipple’s short stories.

I’m copying Lyn’s at (I Prefer Reading) habit of linking to other reviews of the book – for additional reviews see Fleur Fisher, Thomas at My Porch, Iris on books, Book Snob, Lil Bit’s Brit Lit, My Book Club Reviews, Dove Grey Reader.  If I missed your review, please post a link in the comments and I’ll add you.

Happy reading, Ruby

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