This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.
The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.
A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)
The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.
At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.
It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.
The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)
It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.
In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt.
In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.
Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)
Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.
Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.
Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history.
Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.