I was so certain that High Wages was going to be a Cinderella-style story that I’d begun to formulate my review before I was even 100 pages in. ‘Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella tale?’ I was going to say. ‘With High Wages Whipple has taken Cinderella and relocated it to a Northern market town in the early twentieth century’. I was certain that 17-year-old shop girl Jane was cast as Cinders, library assistant Wilfred as Buttons, shopkeeper couple Mr & Mrs Chadwick as the evil stepmother, rich-and-kindly Mrs Briggs as the fairy godmother, and, naturally, handsome local solicitor Noel as Prince Charming. There was a pretty-but-impoverished orphan protagonist, an eligible, wealthy bachelor, and even a grand ball; of course it was Cinderella, wasn’t it?
I was wrong.
Under Dorothy Whipple’s intelligent gaze and deft realisation, our WW1-era Cinders is an altogether more three-dimensional creation, and her story so much more complex and compelling than the nursery fable. High Wages is a fairy-tale grown up, and I loved it for trouncing my preconceptions.
First published by John Murray in 1930 (after being rejected by Jonathan Cape, who did not believe it would be a ‘commercial success’), High Wages was Whipple’s second published work, and went on to become a best seller. It was republished by Persephone Books in 2009.
Unlike Whipple’s later books, which are located in a fictitious version of Nottingham, High Wages is set in northern England, in a typical market town (which commentators suggest was probably based on Preston). At the outset of the novel, our heroine, Jane, is a teenage orphan, living with her stepmother and stepsiblings. When an opportunity presents itself to get a live-in position at a local fabric shop, Jane leaps at the chance (it was common in those days for shop girls to live above their work, and bed-and-board were deducted from their meagre wages). Freed from her unloving stepfamily, Jane finds herself in a position of near-penury, tied to the whims of Scrooge-style employers Mr & Mrs Chadwick. This would not have been an unusual position for young working women of the day, who were often underpaid and overworked. For them, the only escape from the situation would have been marriage. But not for Jane: our enterprising young protagonist has more to offer the world than just a pretty face and good taste in clothes.
I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say the action in High Wages spans about ten years, from pre-WW1 to the mid 1920s, involves fortunes made and lost, forbidden love, heartbreak, and a journey from adolescence to adulthood, all set in the context of parochial Lancashire and the fabric trade (which may seem unlikely settings, but finding engrossing drama in small town life and the middle-classes is what Whipple does best). And, as in Whipple’s later novel, Greenbanks, an understated acknowledgement of the current of female emancipation (women first got the vote after WW1, and their involvement in the war effort had already begun to change their role in society) underpins a journey from adolescence to adulthood.
In short – a nuanced subversion of the Cinderella myth in this beautifully described WW1-era coming-of-age tale.