What are the chances? I just finish one nostalgic trip to the British seaside (R C Sheriff’s A Fortnight in September) when the very next read takes me back there. This time, however, to Blackpool, the actual location of many childhood holidays. Well I did live only a hop, skip and a jump from Whipple (not that I knew it at the time), and so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise if her characters end up frequenting the same places.
I was also a (Saturday) shop girl, with my sights set higher. So I recognised a lot in Whipple’s Jane, and in the rest of her cast. It mattered not that they were a few decades before my time. Lancastrians and human nature in general haven’t changed much. But the cotton mills are long gone, and the class structure is no longer as rigid, is it? It’s been so long since I left Lancashire that I no longer know. I assume that brass still talks. Well, until there’s no brass left …
The magic here is how Whipple makes the rise of a lowly shop girl such compulsive reading. Nostalgia for the good old days plays a part, except that Whipple shows that the good old days (pre-WWI) weren’t all that good, and the live-in shop girls were treated abominably. She’s not didactic. She shows, she doesn’t tell. Just as she shows the heart of all her characters – the honourable Jane whose halo nearly slips, the lovesick librarian, the humble working-class woman uncomfortable with the luxurious trappings of her husband’s wealth, despised by all who have risen above their stations. But she’s the one who is worth her weight in gold. In contrast there’s Whipple’s Lady Catherine de Burgh – Mrs Greenwood. I’ll say no more but Austenites will love to hate her!
Turned down for publication when Whipple first submitted it, High Wages became a runaway bestseller in 1930. 89 years later and it has lost none of its charm. It is perfect highbrow literature? No. Is it entertaining? Yes. Is it readable? Very much so. Is that a bad thing? Hell, no!
My thanks to Karen and Simon, hosts of the #1930club, for prompting me to pick this up. It’s a keeper, for sure.