Friday, January 24, 2014

DOROTHY WHIPPLE, High Wages (1930)

How strange life was with its ebbings and flowings, its fluctuations, its inexplicable movements towards and away from…

This line, coming toward the end of High Wages, sums up rather neatly it’s elegant themes.  A page-turning sort of rags-to-riches story, but made unique and completely convincing by its strong dose of realism, this is the third Dorothy Whipple novel I’ve read, and the earliest (it was her second, after Young Anne in 1927).

As the novel opens, it’s 1912, and Jane Carter, who is still in her teens but has been working as a shopgirl for two years, arrives in Tidsley and manages, almost incidentally, to get a live-in job in a dress shop owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick.  I had a feeling right away that I was going to like Jane, because she has “moments”:

Jane lowered her beauty-dazed eyes to Tidsley market-place. Beneath that canopy, it was transfigured. The peaky roofs of shops and houses stood up darkly in the January air, the windows reflected a green-blue like the shell of a bird's egg. The lamplighter was going round, and now behind him shone a string of jewels, emeralds pale and effulgent. There was almost no one about. It was a moment. Jane sometimes had these moments. She stood still in them.

She befriends fellow shopgirl Maggie, and Wilfrid Thompson, a clerk at the local lending library and also the boy Maggie’s stepping out with—though Wilfrid is largely indifferent to Maggie and quickly becomes far more interested in Jane. We also meet some of Jane’s customers—including the tyrannical, wealthy Mrs. Greenwood and her spoiled daughter Sylvia, and the kind Mrs. Briggs, whose husband is what we would call “upwardly mobile,” has become Mr. Greenwood’s partner, and has moved Mrs. Briggs into a large, uncomfortable house and equally uncomfortable social circles.

Jane has her ups and downs—the loathsome Chadwicks stiff her on her commissions, short the girls on their meals, and later, during the war, actually steal from their rations, not to mention the fact that Jane gets off on the wrong foot with Mrs. Greenwood—but all the while she is making useful improvements in the shop, increasing its sales, and, most importantly, learning everything she can about the trade. 

As this is a plot-driven novel, and the way Whipple unfolds the plot is so compelling and enjoyable, I’m not going to give away much about it. The reader can hardly doubt that Jane will be successful in the end, and can hardly keep from cheering her small triumphs along the way. In large part, this is because Jane herself is so irresistible.  She’s a charming, smart, savvy, practical, tough young woman—all of which serves her well not only in the clothing business but later on when love puts a damper on her success…

For example, who could resist a character with this kind of joy in living, demonstrated as Jane is getting ready to attend her first real dance?:

She drew on her first pair of silk stockings, and in a passion of delight kissed her own knees.

Or this:

Mr. Chadwick saw her off with more fussy instructions. The wind was very high. Jane, a parcel hanging at the length of each arm, tried to keep her hat on by her eyebrows, raising them to incredible heights. But catching sight of herself in Fenwick's window mirror, she giggled and restored them to their natural level.

But what made High Wages so much fun for me—and you know how I love to overanalyze—was really some of the themes running quietly in the background. Jane has a budding social and political awareness that I would never somehow have associated with Whipple, as in this scene when Lily, the shop’s cleaner, tells Jane about her surly alcoholic husband:

‘Aren't you going to love me a bit I says to 'im this morning, and 'e says with such a nasty look, "To 'ell with you and your love." Just like that.'

And when she tried to kiss him good-bye, he'd thrown a plate at her.

'Whatever do you want to kiss him for?' asked Jane, squeezing out the wash-leather for the shopdoor glass. 'Throw a plate back at him, my goodness.'

She thought she herself would make short work of such a husband.

'No...' Lily shook her head as she dipped the bald brush into the blacklead. 'I couldn't do that. Bad as 'e is, I love 'im. Besides, it's me as 'as to pay for the plates.'

‘Ah,' said Jane, 'then there's nothing to be done.'

She would have liked to say something about the combination of love and economy. But she couldn't get it right in time. She often wanted to say things like that; get things neat; but they evaded her, until she was alone, in bed mostly, and then it was too late.

And when Wilfrid begins recommending socially conscious reading material to Jane, it rapidly bears dividends:

Jane went back to the shop, delighted at the unusual prospect of going out to tea. But the kindlier feelings towards the world in general, inspired by Mrs. Briggs, did not prevent her from asking Mr. Chadwick for a rise in wages. Mr. Chadwick was grudging and astonished, but Jane flung so many arguments, culled from H. G. Wells, at him that he was driven, in the end, to put up the screen of an extra half a crown a week between himself and this determined young woman.

Indeed, Whipple makes a great point of discussing her characters’ reading material. Wilfrid recommends Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Swinburne to Jane, but in his lending library he is always fetching the latest work of G. A. Henty and Charles Garvice for his customers (the former known for historical adventures, the latter for melodramatic romances). Maggie prefers Ethel M. Dell, and Wilfrid’s mother reads Augusta Jane Evans’s St. Elmo and Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur, both major 19th century American bestsellers. Sylvia Greenwood, on the other hand, sticks to Vogue and The Tatler

Dorothy Whipple

Clearly such a wealth of information about her characters’ reading matter is not coincidental, and Whipple’s position here is intriguing. She was certainly herself considered a rather “light,” popular writer—the very type of writer she associates with the lower class or less intellectual characters in her novel.  Meanwhile, her main character—with whom her readers would have identified so strongly—is rather highbrow.  This seems to be a textbook example of the strategies that middlebrow authors used (as discussed by Nicola Beauman and Nicola Humble) to satisfy their readers’ need to distance themselves from the lowbrow and flirt with (if not actually read) the highbrow.

The other element that I enjoyed about this novel is its striking awareness (as mentioned by Jane Brocket in her introduction) of the power of marketing and the problem of shopping as a way of compensating for what is lacking in one’s life.  Early on, we see Jane examining the window of a competing shop:

‘All that pink together, now. You'd come across the road to see what it was making such a lovely glow. A pink lampshade, a pink silk eiderdown, a fluffy pink blanket—a pink blanket—a crepe-de-Chine night-gown—and a little net cap with pink ribbons even—and pink bedroom slippers. It makes you feel luxurious and extravagant. As if you could spend all your money and never care. Goodness, I wish I could buy that little cap. But it wouldn't go with the bedroom at Chadwick's, and no one would see me in it, and I should never have time to wear it. But it is a darling.'

She even opened her purse to finger her money, but snapped it shut again and laughed.

‘That's a clever window!'

Would that most people now had that kind of self-awareness about being made to feel they need the latest iPhone, DVR, or laptop! (Though I suppose the fact that I personally despise shopping—except for books, obviously—and that I had the same cell phone for six years and only replaced it recently because Andy upgraded and gave me his old one—does make me rather curmudgeonly on the joys of shopping. I must be missing a gene or something…)

And later on, Jane mulls over the compulsive shopping of one of her customers:

There was pathos in this urge for clothes. Mrs. Mallett, for instance, with some secret flame burning in her slender body and dark eyes-what did she keep dressing up for? All those clothes she bought—red, silver, black, white—what for? To play bridge in the afternoons with the same women in the same drawing-rooms? To dine with these same women plus husbands, talk a little on singularly unstartling topics, play more bridge and so home to sleep and a husband to whom her beauty was a commonplace? Was it for that Mrs. Mallett clothed herself so radiantly? It couldn't be. She, in her secret self, held some excitement, some desire or search. She waited—but for what? She herself probably did not know. Ah, illusion! Nothing would come. But Mrs. Mallett would go on dressing up to be ready for it.

It’s striking to find such a passage in a novel from 1930, long before today’s hand-wringing about rampant consumerism and the insidious power of advertising, and I was even more surprised to find it in a Dorothy Whipple novel. Apparently, even after falling in love last year with Whipple’s final novel, Someone at a Distance, I have still tended to sell her short, to approach her sort of condescendingly as merely a good storyteller with a strong sense of character but little depth. Not that that’s a small thing—would that some of the canonical highbrow authors had been better at storytelling and characterization. But Whipple is clearly more than that.

Most people know (and I love that Persephone even mentions it on their website) that Virago founder Carmen Callil once described the selection process for the Virago Modern Classics this way: “We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: ‘Below the Whipple line.’”

I wonder if Callil has ever revisited Whipple and revised her opinion of her in light of her becoming Persephone’s bestselling author and receiving the respect and adoration of a whole slew of new readers and bloggers? Of course, every reader has their own biases and preferences, and Callil surely remains one of the most brilliant and impactful publishers, really, of all time.

But still, I rather think that Whipple line she talked about has shifted a bit. It might be starting to look a bit more like a high water mark.

The lovely endpapers of the Persephone edition


  1. That 'Whipple line' remark almost put me off Virago but that would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    That photo of Dorothy in her later years is a new one to me, Scott. It looks as though she is wearing one of those plastic headscarves that ladies used to wear to protect the result of their weekly visit to the hairdresser during a rain. She is lovely.

    1. I can't recall where I came across that photo now, Darlene, and admittedly it's not a perfect fit with a review of one of Whipple's earliest novels, but I loved it and just couldn't resist. Doesn't she look as though she would have been a lovely person to have as a next-door neighbor?

      I think I've repeated the Whipple line comment several times here, so this should be the last time, but I find it so fascinating and eloquent, in a way, that two of the greatest publishers of women writers could see one writer from such different angles!

    2. Dorothy as a next-door neighbour on one side and Elizabeth Taylor on the other. Now that's something to fantasize about! Of course, Elizabeth Bowen is my ultimate 'in awe of'' author but far too intimidating to chat with over tea.

    3. Well, while we're at it, why not D. E. Stevenson, Barbara Pym, and Rumer Godden somewhere in dinner-party proximity as well? Rumer's tales of her adventures in India would certainly liven up any lulls in conversation. Perhaps Elizabeth Bowen should be a few blocks away, so none of us feel too awestruck, but close enough to invite for more formal occasions? I imagine Virginia Woolf would decline my invitations, regardless.

  2. It was with relief that I read the bit about Virago's Whipple line. Because of Persephone I've read a couple of Whipples and while I liked them I certainly don't have the passion for Whipple that many contemporary readers do (I must be missing the Whipple appeciation gene!).

    1. I know just what you mean, Peggy. There are a couple of novels that everyone raves about that I have never been able to finish. The one I attempted several times was Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. And I always sort of feel bad about it. But that's what I love about the Whipple line quote--it's somehow liberating that two such brilliant publishers feel so differently about one writer. It just shows how we all have different literary genes! So, if you agree I can toss du Maurier aside, I'm in favor of you throwing Whipple overboard. How's that?


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