'But there was a point below which Carmen and her colleagues would not go: they referred to this as 'the Whipple line', after Dorothy Whipple, a writer of popular fiction in the Thirties and Forties.'
A quote from Carmen Calill in 'that' 2008 Guardian interview with Rachel Cooke, discussing the history behind Virago books and a quote which we should probably address before embarking on any thought-sharing here about High Wages, the latest Dorothy Whipple book to be republished by Persephone Books and with an excellent introduction by Jane Brocket...except to tell you there's a wonderful tea over at Cornflower to day too.
Oh yes and this book has a lovely Crysede fabric print on the endpapers of which there is a fine display in the Penlee Museum in Penzance because much of it was hand-blocked in Cornwall in the 1930s.
Carmen Callil's mother had read all of Dorothy Richardson's books, I think in contrast my mum might have read all of Dorothy Whipple's and how I wish she was alive now for me to ask her, but I suspect these were the books for the likes of my mum.
Thirteen, and from a working class family living in Liverpool 8, the Dingle, when the Second World War broke out. My grandmother had been in service, my grandfather worked on the docks where he was tragically killed in 1949 and I love this picture of them.
My mum Vera had been evacuated to Chester but was brought back to Liverpool by her father at the height of the bombing because he had been sent to fetch her by my grandmother. Vera was far too happy in her home in Chester, was adored by a childless couple and had settled into a lovely school, she might never want to come back, my grandmother couldn't bear it. Just like the plot of another Persephone book, Doreen by Barbara Noble.
So for me, to read a Dorothy Whipple is to feel a connection with my mum and the world she grew up in, the difficulties she faced with an education interrupted by the war, and I wouldn't have been any the wiser but for these reissues.
There is something comforting about sneaking off for an afternoon read with a pot of a tea and a Dorothy Whipple but for all that I read so widely, why am I never disappointed by Dorothy?
Jane Carter is Lancashire born and bred (as was Dorothy Whipple), a shop assistant in that twilight world of the drapers' shops those little emporiums that existed before the arrival of ready-mades. The window displays designed to seduce those with money through the doors, and here you bought your fabric and had your dress made-to-measure, there was haberdashery from which to choose your trimmings and it would be 'a fine thing' if Jane could work in Chadwick's in Tidsley, a step up from Commins' drapers in nearby, and considerably inferior, Elton.
Employment for women remained severely limited in the 1920s and 1930s, it was housemaids or shop work, perhaps some menial office work but not a lot in between and little thought given that women might have ambitions for anything more fulfilling.
Spotting the advert in Chadwicks' window, Jane dons her gloves 'dazzlingly white, fluffy enormous' and proceeds to try and pick the white fluffy bits off her black coat (a hopeless task) before going in to ask about 'the place.'
Jane is successful and ten days later moves in, as was customary, to share the shop-worker's accommodation above the store.
This is the world of fabric unfurled across the counter, the thud of the bolt as it unrolls and if you enjoyed Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, here's another utterly worthy 'shop' novel to add to the shelf. Moleskin shoulder capes and underwear called 'neathies', bolts of flannelette, crepe duchine, gaberdine, alpaca, foulard and eolian all vie for madam's attention, most noticeably Mrs Greenwood who has married into the lucrative mill business and is always accompanied by her spoiled-rotten daughter Sylvia.
I quite thought fascinators were a 21st century invention, how wrong I was, but I do wonder quite what this one looked like,
'Jane went out to find Mrs Chadwick's head draped in a woollen fascinator, with blue and white bobs around the face.'
The social hierarchy that Dorothy Whipple always exposes so well is clearly evident, there's an inter-war years' pecking order to be observed amongst the women of Tidsley and when Mrs Briggs, married to the other partner in the Greenwood mill empire, confesses to Jane that she feels out of her depth in those remote and chilly social waters, a friendship develops that will most certainly do no harm to Jane's career development.
There's plenty of town romance going on and themes of class, fashion, change and resistance to it prevail, and all beautifully crafted by Dorothy Whipple's pen, this was a world she knew and it's a little bit of a world that I knew too.
My mum was a great needlewoman and I still have her school needlework book from 1939, complete with a few working samples. She was taught the meticulous approach and she never lost it, we tacked to within an inch of there being no point in sewing the thing together, but it always fitted first time.
My eyes were forever peeking over the top of the counter in Allders or Kennards in Croydon as yards of fabric were rolled out and the Butterick paper pattern consulted. Then we'd match up the cotton and it would be home to the pinning and the cutting out and then out came the Singer treadle sewing machine and we were away. Tacking and darts, tucks, gathers and pleats and eventually a frock.
So jolting myself out of that bout of nostalgic reverie I think it's quite easy to see why I enjoyed High Wages so much and why I'll always happily traverse that Whipple line and read her, though just one very minor worry.
Come back and let me know if you spot something that doesn't quite add up as I did...I'll say no more but it's a minor detail and no matter, this is a lovely book and don't miss a fine tea over at Cornflower's today, you've earned a treat if you've read this far.