It’s a phrase we might all be contemplating at the moment, when will it be ‘business as usual’? In this book, first published in 1933, it refers to commercial business, in this case an Oxford Street store that resembles Selfridges, and also to the business of being young and finding one’s way in London and in love. It’s a very satisfying novel with some especially attractive features.
Business as Usual
Hilary Fane has decided to earn her own living for a year before she marries her Edinburgh fiancé, Basil. She goes to London, finds digs in the Minerva Hotel (very seedy) and sets out to find a job. Both employment and accommodation are difficult for single girls in the inter-war years. She is pleased to get a post as a lowly clerk in the Library section of Everyman’s Store.
The novel is epistolary in form, which means it’s made up of letters, memos and other paper communications sent to each other by the characters. Most of the letters are by Hilary to Basil or to her parents in Edinburgh. They include long descriptions of what she does, eats, how she budgets, changes digs, and her issues and challenges at work. She illustrates them with line drawings which I found very apt.
There are also memos from store employees about Hilary or other details that help the story along, such as complaints by some of the more dyed in the wool colleagues in the face of Hilary’s innovations. The most significant, and unexplained document, is a certificate for a registered package sent from Hilary to Basil.
The letters, memos and drawings all add to the charm of this novel. I most enjoyed the episode when Hilary is required to respond to a letter of complaint about an unsuitable book that has been sent to an established subscriber. The letter is brought by a senior member of staff who is very grand and Hilary gives him an appropriate nickname.
‘Mrs Pillington-Smythe’ (it said) ‘is amazed that any firm of your standing should encourage the sale of books which can undermine the morals of our country. If certain people choose to demand such literature (save the mark) that is their own affair. But surely, even in these degenerate days, youth is sacred.’ […]
‘She ought to have a very careful letter,’ I suggested. ‘We might say that these books are kept solely for a small clientele with advanced – I mean peculiar – views. And while we may deplore their tastes …’ (The Minor Prophet finished the sentence as I’d hoped.) ‘We are nevertheless obliged to satisfy their requirements.’ His voice wobbled a little, but when I looked hopefully up at him, his face was grimmer than ever. ‘And then,’ I said, ‘We’d send a much more expensive and extra pure book in exchange – no further charge, of course.’ (74-5)
Hilary’s breathless and upbeat attitude carry her through the difficulties of having very little money in Londonand through the love story that emerges in these pages. We are speedily disappointed in Basil’s response to his fiancée’s adventures. And we can see a new love interest coming over the horizon long before Hilary does. Along the way we have learned much about the life of the working girl and what went on behind the scenes in big stores and subscription libraries in the ‘30s. The book is dedicated to The people who work from nine to six.
Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford
Another feature of this book that I found fascinating was that it was written by two people. I have co-written and published books (all non-fiction) myself, and the arrangements have been varied. One book was written by one person after extensive discussions; for another the sections were written by different people; yet a third method was to sit side by side, sometimes literally sometimes metaphorically, and write each bit together. There is no clue how Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford wrote together. I wonder how these two experienced writers managed the process. And they did manage it for between them and together they wrote an astounding total of 97 books, many of them for Mills & Boon.
Finally, a word about the independent publisher, Handheld Press. Business as Usual is one of their Classics, which they say
present forgotten fiction and authors who need to be rediscovered, with introductions by experts and astonishingly useful notes.
The books themselves are beautifully produced, nice paper, good design, well-supported by notes and they are interesting choices. I have previously read and admired Blitz Writing by Inez Holden.
Business as Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford first published in 1933 and reissued by Handheld Press in 2020. 242pp