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PREFACE BY JANE BROCKET
High Wages is the fifth novel by Dorothy Whipple that we have published; we have also reprinted a selection of short stories as The Closed Door and Other Stories. To most of our readers Dorothy Whipple needs no introduction (to use a well- worn cliché) since she is our bestselling novelist. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson is far and away our single bestseller, but Dorothy Whipple, Marghanita Laski and Frances Hodgson Burnett are our bestselling writers.
Yet analysing Dorothy Whipple’s appeal is tricky. She is not, of course, a ‘great’ writer. You could not take one of her sentences, as you can with, say, Mollie Panter-Downes, and hold it up to the light. But she is serviceable, perceptive and humane. Also, she has that great gift of talking directly to the reader and we cannot put the book down until she has finished with us. This is the most frequent comment we get in the shop. ‘I could not put it down,’ people say over and over again about Someone at a Distance (particularly), They Knew Mr Knight, The Priory and They Were Sisters. Unfortunately, readability is not a quality that is studied in universities; thus no literary critic has ever defined what makes Dorothy Whipple’s domestic, everyday books so gripping. I think it is simply because she creates such alive and realistic characters – if Ellen in Someone at a Distance or Lucy in They Were Sisters walked into the shop, we would recognise them. What happened to you? we would say. But, it is true, the books can be perceived as a little everyday: the short story in the latest biannually, for example, which was discovered for us by the actor Benjamin Whitrow – Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – is neither thrilling nor profound, it is just an incident in a young girl’s life. But it is an incident that will have a profound effect on her. At the same time it is interesting sociologically – you get a strong sense of how she lives in Endsleigh Street (oddly enough, the street where Amy Levy lived, round the corner from Lamb’s Conduit Street) even though there is no detail about her working life.
Of course Dorothy Whipple is a supremely moral novelist and that is one of her greatest strengths. She cared so much about people, about her characters, and this intense involvement, compassion and insight is what makes her writing so irresistible.
But readers should remember that not everyone sees the point of Dorothy Whipple’s novels! Virago, famously, did not like them, and this summer Rachel Cooke wrote in the Observer, in the middle of a wonderful panegyric about our books, that Dorothy Whipple ‘bores me to sobs’. Was she being ironic? How can she be bored by her? Middlebrow she might be, lowbrow, possibly, but boring? It’s a mystery; possibly to be solved one day when we hope to entice Rachel Cooke to debate Dorothy Whipple’s appeal, or lack of it, with Sarah Waters, who loves her.
So: we are delighted to be publishing High Wages (1930, Dorothy Whipple’s second book). It is about a girl called Jane who gets a badly-paid job in a draper’s shop in the early years of the last century. Yet the title of the book is based on a Carlyle quotation – ‘Experience doth take dreadfully high wages, but she teacheth like none other’ – and Jane, having saved some money and been lent some by a friend, opens her own dress-shop.
As Jane Brocket writes in her Persephone Preface: the novel ‘is a celebration of the Lancastrian values of hard work and stubbornness, and there could be no finer setting for a shop-girl-made-good story than the county in which cotton was king.’ And the cultural historian Catherine Horwood has written about this novel: ‘Dorothy Whipple was only too well aware that clothes were one of the keys to class in this period. Before WW1, only the well- off could afford to have their clothes made: yards of wool crepe and stamped silks were turned into costumes by an invisible army of dressmakers across the country, and the idea of buying clothes ready-made from a dress shop was still unusual. Vera Brittain talks of “hand-me-downs” in Testament of Youth with a quite different meaning from today. These were not clothes passed from sibling to sibling but “handed down from a rack” in an outfitter’s shop, a novelty.’ High Wages describes how the way people shopped was beginning to change; it is this change that Dorothy Whipple uses as a key turning point in her novel.
‘Farm Scene’, a 1930 dress fabric by Crysede Ltd.
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