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High Wages

by Dorothy Whipple
Persephone book no:

84 85 86

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A Well Full of Leaves
Regular price £14.00
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ISBN 9781903155752

We are delighted to have published 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.

Analysing Dorothy Whipple’s appeal is tricky. She is not 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.

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. No wonder she is Persephone's bestselling writer.


'Farm Scene', a 1930 dress fabric by Crysede Ltd. 

Picture Caption

A 1930 dress by Alec Walker for Crysede Ltd using block-printed Crysede silk

Read What Readers Say

Catie L’Heureux, ‘The Cut’

Smart and delightfully funny and reading it felt like watching a Jane Austen movie — except rather than finding a man, the heroine is focused on opening her own dress shop… It’s a feminist novel without any mention of suffrage or politics, depicting an intelligent young woman who loves shopping and dissecting the design of a pretty window display as much as she enjoys daydreaming about her career, or reading H. G. Wells surreptitiously at work below the shop counter.

Daisy Buchanan, ‘You're Booked’ podcast

A fresh, funny, contemporary delight. It's 'Brief Encounter' meets ’The Secret Dreamworld of A Shopaholic'. I loved it. It put me in a really good mood for days afterwards.

Daniel Akst, ’Strategy and Business’ magazine

The interweaving of fabric and invention is the basis of ‘High Wages’, Dorothy Whipple’s irresistibly shrewd novel of business and love. First published in 1930, it’s about a plucky young woman who succeeds in the clothing business, in part by anticipating the huge changes about to wash over the industry as a result of mass production. The year is 1912. Seventeen-year-old Jane Carter, a Lancashire orphan who’s had to leave school to earn a living, gets a job at a draper’s shop called Chadwick’s, one of the better stores in the fictional town of Tidsley. She quickly distinguishes herself by her intelligence and ambition and Tidsley can barely contain her. On a trip south to Manchester on her afternoon off, she is in heaven, soaking up business insights and even appreciating the ugliness of the place as a sign of its dynamism, for ‘it was no feeble, trickling ugliness, but a strong, salient hideousness that was almost exhilarating.’ In the big city she discovers that some of the best shops dress their windows all in a single colour for maximum impact. Chadwick, not surprisingly, is unimpressed. ‘“The windows do very well, Miss Carter,” he said with dignity. “I have dressed them myself for twenty years, and I don’t think you can teach me anything about window-dressing.”’ Windows prove to be the least of Mr. Chadwick’s problems, as Jane foresees the ready-to-wear revolution. When she manages to browbeat Chadwick into some grudging changes in this direction, profits roll in even as her wages barely budge. But a kindly older friend offers to lend her the money to open a shop of her own and she jumps at the chance. Jane’s experience will be familiar to anyone who has started a business – especially women. DW chronicles all the enthusiasm and work and worry attendant to any start-up, but also unwanted sexual advances during a buying trip to London. ‘High Wages’ is a marvellous book and, for the most part, Dorothy Whipple writes with tremendous authority and restraint, spinning her tale with flawless pacing and thrilling emotional dexterity. It’s apt that her independent-minded heroine makes a success of a store selling ready-to-wear garments. The mass production of textiles and clothing, hard as it has been on its workforce, nonetheless created paid employment for countless women, opened opportunities for their advancement in retailing, and democratised apparel.

Leaping Life via Instagram

The narrative style of ‘High Wages’ is classic Dorothy Whipple: seemingly light and frothy from the beginning, while gradually drawing the reader in through incisive social observation, humour and wit, and brilliantly rendered characters. I started to mark up potential references but soon realised that I might end up noting the whole book. On every page is a fascinating socio-economic comment, a hilarious exchange of dialogue and/or a passing reference which makes one think ‘I really must get back to that/read up more about that’. As such, this is a novel packed full of interest on all kinds of levels. And as a bonus, the story is an absolute cracker! I loved reading this book and look forward to my continuing journey through the Whipple catalogue.

Categories: Family North of England Shopping Teenagers (books for) Working Women

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