Monthly Archives: August 2010

High Wages – Dorothy Whipple

I’m still on my Persephone marathon (and I just bought another three). I think I bought this one because Jane Brocket wrote the preface.
Here’s the blurb from Persephone …

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.

I loved the social history aspects of this novel. I had no idea that the shop girls ‘lived in’ (and were paid appallingly and half-starved). I enjoyed reading about the changing times – how people were going from made for them clothes (by the local seamstress) to off the rack items.  The writing was beautiful and the characters are wonderfully portrayed. However, it was quite a sad story and I’m at a point in my life when I want happy endings (does that make me a philistine?).

Here are some other reviews …

http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2009/11/high-wages-by-dorothy-whipple.html

http://fleurfisher.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/high-wages-by-dorothy-whipple/

http://theliterarystew.blogspot.com/2010/04/high-wages.html

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Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple

 

I’ve been continuing my Persephone reading feast. Someone at a Distance was my free classic. 

Here’s the blurb …

‘A very good novel indeed about the fragility and also the tenacity of love’ commented the Spectator recently about this 1953 novel by Dorothy Whipple, which was ignored fifty years ago because ‘editors are going mad for action and passion’ (as she was told by her publisher). But this last novel by a writer whose books had previously been bestsellers is outstandingly good by any standards. Apparently ‘a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage’ (Nina Bawden in the Preface) yet ‘it makes compulsive reading’ in its description of an ordinary family (‘Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife’) struck by disaster when the husband, in a moment of weak, mid-life vanity, runs off with a French girl. Dorothy Whipple is a superb stylist, with a calm intelligence in the tradition of Mrs Gaskell (both wrote in the Midlands and had similar preoccupations). ‘The prose is simple, the psychology spot on’ said the Telegraph, and John Sandoe Books commented: ‘We have all delighted in this unjustly forgotten novel; it is well written and compelling.’

The thing I noticed most in these days of common divorce was how no one not even Ellen think she is entitled to some of the family assessts. Alimony is offered and refused, but the house is his as are the publishing company and his share of the hosiary company.

The writing is beautiful and the characters are real living and breathing creatures. In some way English good manners brought about their downfall. Ellen should have made Louise leave even if she had no where else to go.

Here are some other reviews …

http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.com/2009/03/someone-at-distance.html

http://family.jesterworld.net/2manybooks2littletime/2010/07/30/someone-at-a-distance-by-dorothy-whipple/

and a review at the Persephone forum

http://thepersephoneforum.co.uk/2010/08/01/persephone-book-no-3-someone-at-a-distance-by-dorothy-whipple/

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Making Conversation – Christine Longford

This is another of my Persephone purchases.

Here’s the blurb …

Making Conversation(1931) by Christine Longford (1900-80) was first reprinted in 1970 after the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson reassessed it in the Times Literary Supplement. She wrote: ‘This ought to be regarded as an English comic classic, which I suppose, unlike the ravishing Cold Comfort Farm, it is not. I hope time will redress the neglect.’ The heroine, Martha, is plain, with curly hair, small eyes which she tries to enlarge in a soulful manner by stretching them in front of the looking glass, and very little chin. She is extremely clever and totally innocent. Her besetting trouble is that she either talks too much, or too little: she can never get right the balance of conversation.

‘The genteel school Martha goes to is run by Miss Spencer and Miss Grossmith. Martha doesn’t mind them. Indeed, she doesn’t really mind anything; she is a most detached girl, letting even their idiotic sarcasms slide off her back. “Now Martha,” said Miss Spencer, “what is adultery?” Martha had not the faintest idea. “It is a sin,” she said, “committed by adults,” putting the accent on the second syllable. “That is a parrot’s answer. You think you are very clever, Martha, attempting to conceal your ignorance and your lack of thought. The attempt at concealment is not better than a lie. Adultery is self-indulgence. It is the extra lump of sugar in your tea. It is the extra ten minutes in bed in the morning. It is the extra five minutes a girl wastes by dawdling up the High Street and gaping at the shop windows….” Martha accepts this Chadbandery in the same way as she accepts the constant nagging that she should be keen on netball, and the gossip she hears around her concerning her preceptors.

I didn’t like this one as much as Miss Buncle’s Book in fact at times I was quite confused and needed to go back and re-read sections (possibly had something to do with the conditions under which I read it).  There are some laugh out loud moments and Martha’s attempts at sophisticated life at Oxford are amusing – the high heels and the face powder. I prhrobably won’t read this one again, but I would be interested in reading a biography of Christine Longford.

Here are some other reviews …

http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.com/2009/05/making-conversation.html

http://desperatereader.blogspot.com/2010/05/making-conversation-christine-longford.html

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Miss Buncle’s Book – D E Stevenson

I bought this book from Persephone press when they had their free classic give away (I received Someone at a Distance). The image above is from the endpaper. Persephone books have the most beautiful endpapers.

The book was delightful – light, entertaining and very quick to read. The period detail is fantastic – I love to read about middle-class England between the wars! Everyone has help. It would be outrageous to be required to do anything domestic for yourself!

Here’s the blurb …

The storyline of Miss Buncle’s Book(1934) is a simple one: Barbara Buncle, who is unmarried and perhaps in her late 30s, lives in a small village and writes a novel about it in order to try and supplement her meagre income. In this respect she is at one with Miss Pettigrew and Miss Ranskill, two other unmarried women who, not having subsumed their existence into that of a man, have to find a way of looking after themselves. There are some serious moments, for example when the doctor’s children are, very briefly, kidnapped (as a way of trying to force their mother to admit that she wrote the book; which she did not). But the seriousness is minimal – mostly this is an entirely light-hearted, easy read, one of those books like Mariana,Miss Pettigrew, The Making of a Marchioness and Greenery Street which can be recommended unreservedly to anyone looking for something undemanding, fun and absorbing that is also well-written and intelligent.

I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who enjoys frivolous enjoyable novels.

Here are some other reviews …

http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.com/2008/11/miss-buncles-book.html

http://eachlittleworld.typepad.com/each_little_world/2009/07/summer-reading-miss-buncles-book.html

http://bookssnob.wordpress.com/2010/06/30/miss-buncles-book-by-d-e-stevenson/

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Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

In one of those strange bits of concurrency I read this book right after Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show On Earth. One thing I really noticed was the conflict with the religion. Living in quite secular times it is hard to imagine being concerned that a creature existed that was now extinct and what did that mean about God and man?

Here’s the blurb …

In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye.

Remarkable Creaturesis the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world.

Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils.

The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and and jealousy.

This novel has two different narrators; Elizabeth and Mary (they alternate chapters). The voices of the two narrators are remarkably different and it adds depth to the story to have two different points of view.

I found this to be a quick read and I enjoyed the historical aspects (I didn’t know anything about Mary Anning or Elizabeth Philpot). Having said that the best I can say is that it is a light, easy read.

Here are some other reviews …

http://anokatony.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/%E2%80%9Cremarkable-creatures%E2%80%9D-by-tracy-chevalier/

http://www.curledup.com/tcremark.htm

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