Business as Usual, a very enjoyable novel of 1933 by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, is about a world of working women in London in the early 1930s, with the breadline looming very close, and the terror of knowing that one week’s salary lies between you and the street. Pennies are counted, stockings are darned, shoes that get splashed and soaked have to last for a whole week, and one dress must be clean enough for daily wear. It inhabits the same territory as Winifred Watson’s later and far more successful Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, but has a longer-term, gentler appeal.
The story is told in letters by Hilary Fane, a young woman from Edinburgh, fresh out of Oxford, who has moved to London for a year because she has agreed with her fiancé, Basil, an Edinburgh surgeon, that they can’t get married for a year. She intends to find work, because that will reconcile her to a life of being supported by her husband, knowing that she will have proved that she can support herself. She writes to Basil, naturally, and she writes to her loving parents, and she writes to employment agencies.
She is doughty, fiercely independent, not too proud to say she is sorry and to admit when she been wrong, but is also tough enough to ask her fiancé the straight questions, and direct enough to tell him what she thinks. He never appears, but we get a pretty strong idea of his personality from her replies to his letters.
By far the more interesting aspect of the novel is the world of the department store. Hilary is taken on as a clerk in the library department of Everyman’s, a large department store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street (which pretty much nails the Selfridges identification). She is moved to the library itself when her intelligence and tact are discovered by senior management. Memos begin to fly: aggrieved ones from the clerking department, and offended ones from the library head, whose nose is being put out of joint. Hilary is the classic breath of fresh air, and brings modern organisation and common sense to a department that is just a little bit hidebound, too in awe of its systems to make room for proper customer care. She is also a kind and natural leader, and problems begin to be brought to her for untangling.
This is where the most unexpected aspect of this very modern novel emerges: sex in the 1930s. Hilary has already noted in passing that the Marie Stopes books have a section to themselves in the library (did they really, in the real Selfridges? Sex historians take note.) Then one of her colleagues comes her In Trouble. We’ve already had some back story on this respectable, single lady, so her pregnancy is a bit of a surprise, but only because it’s part of the plot, rather than being mentioned in passing, or tidied away behind the scenes. There is a baby on the way, the father is not mentioned, the lady wants to keep the baby, and she needs a way to do this without scandalising all her friends and relations, not to mention her censorious, gossiping colleagues, or her employer that must not have the tiniest breath of scandal anywhere near its reputation. Hilary writes to Basil for help, and is angry when he rejects her suggestion that his hospital (he is an obstetrician) could help her colleague have the baby. Luckily, someone else has already stepped in, and the anxious mother-to-be has her face and her baby saved, and all is well. But to cover this topic, and the happy outcome, without the slightest whiff of guilt or moralising, in an utterly middlebrow novel destined for Nice Book status in the lending libraries, is astonishing.
Book historians will also enjoy this novel mightily for the chapters dissecting how a bad department store library can fail to function and make terrible messes, and how sensible improvements will make all right. This is the organisational detail that gets lost in the archives, containing the other side of the episodes in so many interwar novels where books are borrowed or cannot be supplied. It’s probably a niche interest, but having recently been working through the library records of the ertwhile W H Smith library myself, I found this fascinating.
‘Jane Oliver’ and ‘Ann Stafford’ are themselves almost completely obscure. A local history society in Hampshire recorded some very useful facts about these authors (one or both of their names are pseudonyms) in the 1970s, and they are more well-known for their historical novels. But should anyone out there know more, I’d be glad to hear about these extremely interesting novelists of modern times.