Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"High Wages," by Dorothy Whipple

Some readers may remember that a few months ago I “discovered” the writer Dorothy Whipple, whom I had not known about before. Now that I have read some of her fiction, I find that although she wrote mostly in the 1930s and 1940s, many besides me still read her today. This was a humbling experience. Not because I claim to know all writers, of course (!), but because Whipple’s work is exactly the kind of fiction I like, and I am surprised and a bit chagrined that I had not heard of her before. In any case, I did recently “discover” her, loved her fiction, and posted about three of her books (one short story collection and two novels) on 1/24/12, 1/30/12, and 2/10/12. After that, I had been meaning to read more of her fiction, and knew that the USF library had several of her books, in the beautiful Persephone editions with their grey covers and gorgeous, colorfully patterned inner covers. I have now just read “High Wages” (originally 1932, republished by Persephone 2009), and enjoyed it very much. This novel is different than most of Whipple's other works, in that instead of focusing on middle and upper class characters, it features a main character who starts out very poor. Jane becomes an orphan in her early teens, doesn’t get along with her stepmother, and soon is out on her own. At first she works in a haberdashery shop, at the lowest level possible, living behind the shop, badly paid and badly fed. But she is a bright, talented, hardworking, observant young woman, with a vision of how to do things better, and with ambition, and she gradually raises her station in life, eventually owning her own very prestigious and successful shop. The story tells not only of her work, but also of her friendships, hardships, romances, and more. Unlike most English novels that are set in London, this one takes place mainly in northern England, in a small town near Manchester. Some of the scenes that most impressed me were Jane’s outings to increasingly far away cities – first Manchester, then Liverpool, and finally London. She was fascinated by everything about these cities, wandering the streets, observing the people, looking at the shop windows, soaking it all in. This suddenly reminded me of how even today, even in my prosperous city of San Francisco, there are children in some districts of the city who have not only never been out of the city but have not even been to Golden Gate Park or to Ocean Beach. This was a sad reminder that a seemingly unchanging fact about the world -- the gap between the rich and the poor, and even the middle class and the poor -- is still huge, and still something we need to be aware of and fight against.

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