Wednesday 18 March 2015

Penguin no. 549: High Wages
by Dorothy Whipple

She could see the occupants of the first-class carriages playing cards, or fallen into unlovely sleep. They did well to avert their eyes from the landscape they had made. They had made it; but they could not, like God, look and see that it was good. Monstrous slag-heaps, like ranges in a burnt-out hell; stretches of waste land rubbed bare to the gritty earth; parallel rows of back-to-back dwellings; great blocks of mill dwellings, the chimneys belching smoke as thick and black as eternal night itself; upstanding skeletons of wheels and pulleys. Mills and mines; mills and mines all the way to Manchester, and the brick, the stone, the grass, the very air deadened down to a general drab by the insidious filter of soot.

H.G. Wells seems something of a hero to the protagonist of High Wages. His novels are presented as having made a real difference in her life: she is emboldened by having read them, and in one difficult moment - perhaps the most difficult she will ever face - she argues her case successfully by using arguments culled straight from his books. The many references to Wells suggest that the similarities between this story and Kipps cannot be inadvertent - High Wages seemed to me an extension of Kipps; its premise had been reinterpreted from a female perspective, but it had also been built upon foundations the earlier work provided.

 High Wages begins in 1905, the year Kipps was published, and Dorothy Whipple covers much of the same territory - there is a focus on the unnecessary hardships of the working poor, and on their vulnerabilities, and on the inequities inherent in a stratified society. Jane Carter is exploited by her employer because nothing constrains him from exploiting her, she is underfed and poorly housed by her employer's wife because to speak up would mean being left homeless, and she is harassed by a member of the upper classes because he can misbehave in this way without any consequences. The humiliations Jane is forced to endure are all inflicted by those well-aware that they are behaving unconscionably. But they behave so, and continue to behave so, because there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

But Jane Carter has spirit and so there is never any sense that she is being portrayed as a victim, or as a character deserving pity. She is shown to possess qualities which are of far greater value than having plenty of money - she has an interest in the world around her, a keen intelligence, an indomitable spirit and a drive to innovate and succeed. For all their wealth and power, the well-off are presented as being far worse off than those like Jane whom they despise because of their association with trade and work. Their lives lack excitement because their wealth insulates them from difficulties and challenges. Work and achievement are presented here as being fundamental to happiness; those of the upper classes may have esteem, status and power, but these are based on nothing more than being born in the right time and place. Jane, in contrast, can be proud of everything she has achieved by herself.

Jane Carter, like Arthur Kipps, begins the story as an orphan living unhappily with relatives who are disinclined to support her. When her father dies she is forced to leave school and begin earning her own living, though she lacks any marketable skills, and in time she takes a position in a department store in Tidsley. In 1905, such a position means long hours, inadequate food and living on the premises; it also means living without security as she can be sacked and turned out of her lodgings with only twenty-four hours notice. It is these conditions which encourage unfairness, because it is difficult to fight against the unscrupulousness of an employer when he is holding all the cards. In the beginning Jane is exploited by her employer, starved by her landlady and made a plaything of the vanity of a customer.

But Jane fights back, and this is where her story departs from that of Kipps. Jane Carter never accepts the constraints of her situation and never doubts that she will find a way out. And in this story, Jane is the agent of her own successes.

High Wages reads like a fairy tale, and yet I found it a joy to read because it is so positive, and because of the vibrant nature of the protagonist. It is a story about succeeding against the odds which takes as its theme that possession of wealth isn't sufficient for happiness, and which makes its case without hectoring.

First published March 1930. Published in Penguin Books 1946.


  1. Glad you enjoyed it, Karyn...I did too!

  2. Dorothy Whipple's star seems to be rising again. Several of her books have been reprinted by the excellent Persephone Press.

  3. I'd never heard of her until I started selling secondhand books and noticed that her titles sold within hours of going on sale. Her revival is undoubtedly thanks to blogs like this.

  4. Here's a Penguin I bet you don't have in your collection

  5. I always enjoy Dorothy Whipple - this was the first of hers I read, I must get it down again. Thanks for the memory.



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