Saturday, March 16, 2013

Let's have a book on a Saturday; why not

Who can resist a Persephone book? Not me, obviously. In my jetlagged state I bought myself a handful of books (yes I know), including this one: High Wages, by Dorothy Whipple.

The inside cover is the important cover
If you've looked into Persephone Books at all, you'll quickly realize that Dorothy Whipple is a kind of crown jewel of their lineup. A female author popular in her own day but overlooked more recently, she and her work are great examples of the value of republishing the kind of titles Persephone does.

Although I have previously fallen victim to Proserpinian charms, I had not bought anything by Dorothy Whipple, so when I decided that, yes, I definitely needed something grey-covered right now, I thought it was as good a time as any to give her a spin.

High Wages is a great read: entertaining, interesting, and not entirely predictable. It's a story about an ambitious and hard-working young woman who gets some -- but not all -- of the things she wants. The romantic side of the story is in some ways a little bland and unconventional -- one romantic interest is the posh and popular Golden Boy of the town, the other is bookish and sensitive -- but the way it plays out is, I thought, not conventional at all. This is not a book that ends with an unambiguous romantic triumph by any means.

Jane, the main character, is a shop girl with a particular genius for women's clothes, so the story follows her from working in a well-established shop for an insecure and stubbornly old-fashioned businessman to opening her own shop, filled with modern ready-made clothing. There's a lot that's interesting here, in relation to the history of women's clothing as well as women's work (more on this note below). By the end of the novel, though, Jane is questioning the way her life has been devoted to women's clothes: is this all so important, really? Granted, she has a lot else on her mind by then to make her feel a little weary, and she doesn't suddenly become some sort of anti-fashion radical or anything (thank goodness), but I thought this little note of ambivalence was great. It's just an example of how Whipple is able to portray a thoughtful character, not to mention the way people change their thinking over time in subtle and sometimes imperceptible ways.

This is an unmistakably feminist novel which succeeds nevertheless in not beating the reader over the head with feminism (a point which is nicely made in the introduction). Whipple is maybe a touch more subtle than Winifred Holtby but both authors successfully show rather than tell what's wrong. Jane is not only mistreated by her employer, but she encounters some really gross salesmen when she sets up on her own. Just as in another novel you might be really angry along with the main character when someone insults her, here you can just feel the ickyness of some of the situations Jane gets into.

My only minor complaint was that the writing seemed a little "simple" and straightforward at times, like being told a bedtime story. But then I read it when I was jetlagged so maybe it was just my ability to process language that was simplified...

Overall, it was a very enjoyable book and absolutely cram-packed with period detail, some more intentional than others. If you want a good representation of some of the new ideas about love and sex between the wars, here you go. This is another one for my theoretical list of books that could be assigned to a class.

Oh crap, there's only one image in this post. Uh, uh, uh.... Amy, help me!

1 comment:

  1. Someday, I will go into the Persephone shop. Along with a billion other things I apparently 'have' to see in London.

    I've heard of Dorothy Whipple!...because of Persephone (obvs). And I would totes read this. Because FEMINISM! And also ladies opening shops is strangely interesting.