High Wages by Dorothy Whipple is a charming story of a woman in the 'man's world of women's clothing', as Jane Brocket puts it in the introduction to the Persephone edition. Set in Whipple's native Lancashire the story follows Jane, an 18 year old orphan beginning life away from her step-mother. She is living-in over a draper's shop in Tidsley, a northern market/manufacturing town with a traditional centre of little shops, a library and cafes, an industrial area, and up the hill away from the worst of the smoke the big houses owned by mill owners, solicitors, etc. Brocket speculates that the town is a version of Preston and that certainly fits both the internal geography and the direction of railway lines mentioned in the story.
Jane has vision and ambition and won't be bullied or squashed and despite the oppressive life she leads with the drapers the Chadwicks, where Mr Chadwick chalks her sales up as his own to deprive her of her commission and Mrs Chadwick takes delight in feeding her as little as possible, she looks and learns and saves, moving onward and upward from haberdashery to ready-mades as the world becomes her business oyster.
Jane is a captivating character for whom one roots from the very beginning. But alongside the very charming story is a fascinating social history of shops, shop girls and small town business in the 1920s and 1930s.
As a the owner of a small business myself who went through many of the "could I?", "should I?", questions that Jane does, Jane's steps on the path of business ring very true. More fascinating than that to me was another family connection. This is not the first Hawley name on a business sign:
Mr J's paternal grandmother Hilda Hawley, who started life as a mill girl, was by middle age the owner of Hilda Hawley's gown shop in another Lancashire town in the 1930s.
There are many parallels between Jane's story and Hilda's. Just as Jane acquired Lily and other characters that she comes to feel responsible for, so Hilda's shop gathered an interesting group of ladies that my husband grew up knowing as 'aunties' and for whom the family exercised some responsibility for for many years. Hilda's daughter-in-law was still doing the weekly shop for one of these elderly ladies when I joined the Hawley family in the early 90s.
For both the fictional Jane and the real life Hilda beginning, and then building to success, a business in a man's world was no mean feat. Especially when, as Jane discovers when she dares to venture to the Hospital Ball, the social pecking order of the early 20th century was so strongly marshalled by ladies like Mrs Greenwood, the mill owner's wife in High Wages. Hilda too clearly felt this we know, as she was quick to join social and business organisations that gave her social standing.
But back in her youth I wonder if Hilda, like Jane, took the train to Manchester and looked at the dressed windows of Kendals and dreamed ...
Whipple's novel then contains both story and history and in both senses the characterisation (Whipple's strength, I think) shines through, bathing the whole in an enticing light. At one point Jane is so taken with a 'lovely glow' of a window dressing that it, 'makes you feel luxurious and extravagant. As if you could spend all your money and never care'. Whipple takes sateen and alpaca and bathes the whole in such a glow, making you buy the lot. It is a funny book too: the scene where a shabby-genteel companion to Mrs Greenwood, anxious to make a good tea at Mrs Greenwood's expense, misses out on a second hot scone and a sandwich by accidentally revealing the assignations of Sylvia Greenwood and the curate, is worth the book price alone. This is my second Whipple novel and I continue to be charmed.
BTW: Jane Brocket has written some town guides, one of which is for Preston, and is available as a free download on her blog from January 19th.