Wednesday, March 20, 2013

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

I watched (and enjoyed) Downton Abbey on TV but always felt it was anachronistic. It only takes reading a novel about English village life that was actually written in the 1920’s to get a sense of how wrongly contemporary Downton Abbey really is. High Wages, Dorothy Whipple’s story of Jane Carter’s development from shopgirl to business owner is chock full of the kinds of things that are totally missing from Downton Abbey: quirky slang, unfamiliar food, a rigid immovable class structure, and pervasive exploitation and sexual harassment of working women.*

But of course High Wages stands alone as a really good book, all comparisons aside. Whipple’s prose is direct and occasionally witty. Jane Carter is a smart girl, talented and determined to succeed. And the local dress shop is the perfect vantage point from which to view all the happenings throughout the village. It’s also a metaphor for the changes occurring all over Great Britain and the U.S.: the transition from drapery shops that sold only fabric to dress shops that specialized in the new ready-made clothing; the increased opportunities for working class folks and women especially, the social taboos that fell as hemlines rose. Whipple knew she was chronicling a time of great change but she does it with such subtlety you don’t even notice.

This was another long out-of-print book republished recently by Persephone Books of London. You can buy them directly from Persephone’s website or get them through larger library systems. My goal is to read at least five Persephone books this year and I’m already on my second one.

*I do understand that the DA producers don’t want to scare off their U.S. audience with Yorkshire accents or sheep’s head for luncheon.

(Book 8, 2013)


Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of Persephone Books - so far I haven't read one that I haven't enjoyed. What is particularly pleasing is how I have been able to enjoy re-reading books I loved in my late teens and early 20s, Monica Dickens' novels for example. They are so beautifully produced, the covers look elegant, and the prints used for the end-papers have been so carefully chosen. It makes it a pleasure to see them on bookshelf.
My sister celebrates her 60th birthday next month, and my gift to her is six Persephone books, a gift-wrapped book will arrive once a month for six months - now she is retired from a stressful teaching job she will have the time to enjoy them!

Shelley said...

That sounds like a happy 60th birthday in the other post! I'm adding High Wages to my reading list. As a writer, I strongly object to some other opinions that watching Downton Abbey is "as good" as reading literature.

It's not.

LINDA from Each Little World said...

did you get this through UW Library? Have been thinking of ordering it and you've made me definitely want to read it.

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