Reviewed by Ali, 25 February 2020
Business as Usual is an early work from the formidably productive writing partnership of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford (both pseudonyms) – and it is utterly delightful. A novel about women, work and society, it is full of period detail, humour and spirit. Ann Stafford’s charming line drawings are reproduced alongside the text as they were originally in 1933.
Written in letters, it tells the story of Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh who having finished with university wishes to spend a year earning her living in London before returning home to be married. The novel faithfully recreates the reality of work, shopping and conventional society while also acknowledging the poverty and even illegitimacy that existed alongside it. In no way a novel that preaches, however, it is instead a novel of light, bright intelligence, deeply charming and ultimately heart-warming.
When Hilary leaves her parents’ home for London – still with a job to find – they are bemused but supportive. Her fiancé Basil however is clearly disapproving, not really understanding why Hilary needs to do this. Basil is an up and coming surgeon, and through Hilary’s affectionate letters that travel to Edinburgh full of life, chatty and loving we begin to sense that Basil is just a little bit pompous.
I meant to write to you last night, but I waited, because I thought there might be a letter. And there was – a very sweet one. Bless you! But I don’t think one enjoys: ‘I told you so’ however beautifully it’s put. It isn’t true either I’VE GOT A JOB. So I won’t be coming to heel just yet.
Alone in London Hilary rents a room and sets about trying to find a job. She is determined to succeed, keen not to have to go home with her tail between her legs. As she begins to apply for jobs, Hilary nervously watches her savings diminish, as the realities of living independently bite. Every step of the way she writes to her family and to Basil, recounting her ups and downs, successes and failures.
After a shaky start job-hunting, Hilary finally lands a job as a typist in the famous London department store of Everyman’s (clearly a thinly disguised Selfridges). Hilary’s typing skills aren’t quite the thing however, which actually allows her to move out of the secretarial department, onwards and upwards to the library – which is much more suited to her abilities.
I wrote labels till eleven, with interruptions from people called Packers, who seemed short-tempered. At least they brought back several of my labels and pointed out that I had forgotten part of the address.
Hilary’s organisational skills, and ability to help people, bring her to the attention of the manager Mr Grant, who is clearly impressed. The life of a large department store is brought further to life in the inter-departmental memos between the staff supervisor and Mr Grant – Hilary is often the subject. Promoted first to the book sales department, Hilary enjoys helping people make purchases but gets into some trouble with her arithmetic; the library suits her much better and the increase in salary is very helpful. Bit by bit Hilary learns to negotiate her way through the difficulties of working with other people – and managing her life as an independent working woman.
The worst of earning one’s living is that it leaves so little time over to live in. During the winter you’ve got to hand over the eight daylight hours and only keep the twilight bits at each end. And most of them go to waste in sleep.
Hilary is able to move into her own small flat, furnished with the help of an aunt – who ambushes her in the department store, to some embarrassment. Hilary meets an old friend, who is also living an independent life in London, and gradually she starts to learn all the ways an independent young woman is able to live in London – and Hilary enjoys it. She’s busy and doing well, and she likes the feeling of being successful. She even finds herself having to help out a young woman who finds herself ‘in trouble’, as they used to say.
And then in my official capacity I have to take the pulse of at least a dozen departments daily, and decide whether their buyers are really overdriven and under-staffed as well as proclaiming to heaven that life is intolerable and their one desire a decently quiet grave. I settle disputes, administer sal volatile and good advice, placate and guide any customers I may meet clamouring for mechanical toys among the ironmongery.
In the depiction of Hilary’s colleagues and the department store’s customers we get a wonderful portrait of 1930s retail, which included the important lending library that so many people of this period relied upon. It feels like a very realistic, faithful portrait – humorously depicted.
This story of a year in Hilary’s life is absolutely delightful. Hilary’s voice is so warm, witty and bright she is immediately engaging. Striding out on her own for the first time, Hilary has to negotiate all the pitfalls of working in retail and living independently away from her family.
Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, Business as Usual (Handheld Press, 2020). 978-1912766185, 266pp., paperback original.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)