As a book lover and Oxfam book shop volunteer, how could I not love Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Originally published in 1933, it was reissued last year as a Handheld Classic, when a lot of bloggers wrote some very nice things about it, and I can see why. The novel, written as a series of letters, memos, and telegrams, centres on Hilary Fane, who is spending a year in London earning her own living before returning to Edinburgh to marry surgeon Basil.
Hilary is lovely: warm, caring, funny, intelligent, and very feisty. She has a quirky sense of humour, and a keen appreciation of people’s oddities and foibles – I think she would find Elizabeth Bennett a kindred spirit! At this point, I will state loudly and clearly that I cannot for the life of me understand how she came to be hooked up with Basil, who is everything she is not. We never actually meet him, and don’t see his letters, so we only get to know him from Hilary’s replies, but he comes across as being dour, selfish, controlling, and very conscious of his position on society. He’s given to saying ‘I told you so’ when things go wrong, but never, ever congratulates Hilary on her successes, or offers her any encouragment, (Spoiler Alert: As the story progresses, and the relationship breaks down, her letters to Basil get shorter and shorter, and she tells him less and less).
Anyway, Hilary finds life very different to anything she has known before. She comes from a cultured, educated, middle class family, holds a degree, and has been a teacher and a librarian – none of which qualifies her for employment in London. Her first interview is for a job in Corsets, where she is told she could have ‘quite a success with the Stout Gents’ Belting’ – but she is expected to pay £30 for the priviledge of selling these garments! Next she tries for work with ‘a purveyor of Psycho-therapy’ who is wearing a Biblical bath-robe and ‘contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it’. She beats a hasty exit without discovering what her duties would have been!
Eventually she is offered a position as a clerk in the book department of Everyman’s Stores in Oxford (Our Business is Your Pleasure, they boast), for the princely sum of £2 10s a week – less 1s 3d for sickness and unemployment. The work is boring (mainly writing labels for parcels of books), and she’s not very good at it. especially when it comes to financial matters. She writes home: “Mr Simpson came up and said that he’d see I wasn’t idle. So after lunch he gave me a list of books that I could type for him. It was nice to get to know their names, wasn’t it? I spent the afternoon over his list. It wasn’t altogether wilful meandering, either. I just couldn’t get the prices to add up right, and whenever I was half-way up the shillings column Miss Hopper sent me to get something for her or a packer brought me back one of my more illegible labels and I had to begin at the bottom again.”
Oh, how I sympathise about those figures! When I was at Oxfam and had to cash up, I could never get the money in the till to match the amount shown on the receipt totals, and I would count, and count, and count, and each time, impossible though it may be, there was different amount!
Hilary’s labels are illegible, she knocks books off tables, and makes bills out wrong but, despite all that, she is promoted after resolving a problem with the headmistress of a posh girls’ school, who has received a copy of Marie Stopes in the monthly parcel of ‘select’ books supposedly suitable for her pupils! Mr Grant, Organising Director is impressed, and believes her talents could be better used elsewhere, so he moves her to the book shop, where she adds up on her fingers, and draws in the sales book… much to the horror of the supervisor.
Mr Grant (who is a bit of a dish) comes to her rescue, and she is transferred to the library, where they do less adding, and asked to look into the system, trace complaints, and draw up plans for improvements. To avoid ill-feeling among the staff, Mr Grant (Michael) steps in again – he oviously appreciates Hilary in a way that Basil does not – and she is appointed assistant to the staff supervisor, a role that suits her perfectly. “It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate.“
And she may be be bad at maths, but Hilary turns out to be surprisingly at budgeting her meagre wages. She moves out of the hotel where she stays when she first arrives in London, rents a basement room for seventeen shillings a week, eats filling food in cheap restaurants, and darns her stockings, like any other working girl. Later, when she gets a wage rise, she’s able to move into a small flat, but there is no money for luxuries, and not much spare time. Writing to Basil, she says: “The worst of earning one’s living, Basil, is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours to Everyman’s, and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.”
She has opted to live like this, but she understands that for her colleagues there is no choice. “I can always run away. They – the other people with basements and nine-to-six and two pounds ten a week – can’t”. And she adds: “I know I shan’t spend my life this way. I won’t. But the others, Miss Hopper and Miss Watts and Mildred Lamb, will. And they know it. It’s the only way they can be safe; sure of a place to sleep in, food, and those tidy, monotonous clothes. But they pay so much more for that safety (in things that aren’t money), than the basic two pounds ten a week.”
The book is light-hearted, and is never overtly political, but nevertheless social issues of the day, like unemployment, are implicit in the story, and you realise how difficult life must have been for single, working class women. Everyman’s, generally thought to be based on Selfridge’s, reflects the social order of the day, with its own hierarchy, and separate facilities to keep managers and the managed apart. And neither side is expected to fraternise with customers, so you can imagine how shocked the staff are when Hilary’s wealthy Aunt Bertha sweeps her off for lunch in the customers’ restaurant!
There was so much I loved abut this book, but it’s impossible to mention everything. The descriptions of people, however brief their appearance, really bring them to life – your heart goes out to the older women who ‘go from one dust-bin to another with sacks at this time of day: they lift the lids and finger the muddle inside with grey, careful hands that never miss a bottle or a crust’. It makes you realise what a difference the creation of the welfare state made to people.
Set against that is Hilary’s hilarious account of a performance by the staff drama group, which she sends to Michael (no longer Mr Grant!) because he has broken an ankle and cannot attend. During my time as a local journalist, I covered an awful lot of amateur dramatics, some of which were excellent. But there were many things which could (and did) go wrong, and the book’s authors perfectly capture the atmosphere of these occasions – and the enjoyment and enthusiasm of the watching friends and family.
There are charming illustrations by Ann Stafford, and an excellent inroduction by Kate Macdonald (who founded this independent publisher). She provides a wealth of fascinating information about Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (real names Helen Christina Easson Rees, née Evans and Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler) who wrote some 97 novels, together and independently. Kate also places the novel in the context of its time, with details about life, libraries, social classes, and women’s roles in society.
I bought the Kindle edition because I wanted an immediate read, but I wish I’d bought the book.