High Wages is set in 1912 and describes the lives of many young women of that era who had limited educational and career options. Jane Carter, the heroine of this novel, is a Northern young woman who has to leave school and get a job as a shop girl after the death of her father. Jane is one step up from the local mill girls. She woke to the blackness filled with clogs. ..Dark shapes streamed across the market place. “Thank goodness I don’t go to the mill” breathed Jane, plunging back into bed. “I couldn’t get up at half-past five.”
But Jane’s life as a shop girl in reality is little better than the mill girls. She works long hours, lives above the shop where she shares a bedroom with the other shop girl, and is paid considerably less than mill girls. Unlike them she is isolated in the shop, her life is dominated by the owner and his wife, and she does not have the solidarity and growing militancy of the mill girls.
Friendship with Maggie, the other shop girl, brings her to the local Free Library and friendship with the library assistant Wilfrid. He introduces her to the radical novels of H.G.Wells and the poetry of William Blake. The three of them escape the town and, like thousands of other working class people in this era, spend their limited free time walking on the local moors.
Jane is a feisty young woman and challenges the shop owner over his low wages and the way he tries to cheat her out of commission. But she quickly realises her subservient position. “She remembered Mr. Chadwick had the power to turn her away at a day’s notice, without wages. She remembered that she would have great difficulty in getting another job in Tydsley, if she left for such a reason as this. She remembered that she had nowhere to go-but her stepmother’s house.”
Jane, who has a good eye for fashion, proves herself invaluable to Mr. Chadwick and his customers. But times are changing in the retail business and his shop – the old fashioned draper’s selling to a local elite of rich women- is being supplanted by a ready to wear market selling to a much broader group of women.
Jane makes friends with a local woman, Mrs. Briggs, who was originally from humbler roots, and together they upset the status quo. When she gives Jane tickets for the Hospital Ball, even Mr.Chadwick is impressed and is happy to go with his wife and Jane. But their presence is a scandal as the local matriarch Mrs. Greenwood comments. “How do tradespeople get the tickets? I impress on all ticket sellers that they must be most careful, but in spite of all I can do, the tone – the TONE is lowered year by year.”
Financed by Mrs Briggs Jane escapes the drudgery of Chadwick’s to open her own ready to wear shop. She now can employ staff, travel to London to buy stock , and establish herself in the town as an independent person.
High Wages is a well written novel, with a sympathetic heroine, but something is missing. The author, Dorothy Whipple, was from Blackburn and the novel is set in Preston, but she chooses not to mention the vibrant political culture in these northern towns during this time. There is no reference to the suffrage movement and the growing militancy of working class women who formed the backbone of workers in these towns.
Also for a novel about shop girls there is no mention of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants which was set up in 1891. Margaret Bonfield, who started her working life as a shop assistant, was Assistant Secretary in 1898 and regularly spoke at meetings across the country. Mary Quaile heard Margaret speak in Manchester in 1908 and it encouraged her to become an activist in her trade union.
High Wages was published in 1930 but you have to go to Ethel Carnie’s novel Miss Nobody, published in 1913, to get a more political view of women’s lives in this period. Both women were from northern towns, but Ethel and Dorothy were quite different characters. Ethel originally worked in a mill, Dorothy came from a middle class background and was a secretary. Ethel came from a highly politicised community in the mills and factories of the north and channelled that radicalism into her political activity and her novels.
Dorothy does capture the life of a young woman and her search for an independent life. Jane is a very sympathetic heroine who fights against injustice and is kind to those who are not as strong as her. It is a well written novel that has a strong sense of female friendship and captures the changing lives of women in this period.
Published by Persephone Books (2016) there is an excellent introduction by Jane Brocket.