What is it about Dorothy Whipple’s books? What seems like a fairly ordinary story on the outside ends up being almost impossible to put down. I’ve read four of her books now and they have all been the same. It’s as if the minute the first page is turned I’m immersed in the world of the characters – it’s perplexing yet wonderful. What a shame there are not more in print.
In contrast to Someone at a Distance (still my favourite) which was published in 1953, High Wages was one of Dorothy Whipple’s earlier books, published in 1930 and set in an earlier time frame. The story opens in 1912 and spans several years taking in World War One.
The heroine of the story is Jane, a delightful 19 year old with a buoyant and entreprenurial spirit, commited to making something of her life despite the odds being against her. As a live in shop girl in a drapery she is cold, underfed and underpaid and yet she still thrives. Her natural style and charisma draw people to her and in an almost rags to riches story her circumstances begin to change. There is a colourful cast of supporting characters, room for romance and scandal which makes for compulsive reading. At the end of the day what is fair and morally right is the winner and this is something I have found in Dorothy Whipple’s other books as well.
High Wages is set in a fictional Northern town in England and highlights the massive gap in living conditions between women of different social classes at this time. The contrast between Jane and the women she waits on is marked. It is a reminder of the complete lack of choice and freedom that was available to unmarried women with no family support (we learn early in the book that Jane’s parents have both died). It also gives a wonderful insight into what it was like to work in a clothes shop at a time when clothes were mostly still made by hand and how intricate it all was. Jane’s trips to Manchester and London to visit the big stores and window displays and the awe she experiences with the train journey and all the big city delights are brought to life really well.
I absolutely loved the first half of the book, felt the second half didn’t quite live up to the promise of the earlier chapters but overall still thoroughly enjoyable as aways!
328 pages, 1930