A brief deviation from my 20 Books of Summer list, because I didn’t quite fancy anything on it. Instead, I picked up Business as Usual. Business as Usual, written by Jane Oliver and illustrated by Ann Stafford, is an epistolary novel originally published in 1933, recently reissued by Handheld Press. Its main character is Hilary Fane. Hilary has recently become engaged to Basil Rainford, an up-and-coming obstetric surgeon in her native Edinburgh. Circumstances mean that they can’t marry for a year, and Hilary has recently lost her job at the local library during a restructure. She thinks just sitting around until marriage would be boring, and anyway she doesn’t want to be a drain on her parents’ resources. Hilary therefore determines to move to London and try to find a job – any job – that will pay her enough to get by. After being met with setbacks and rejections galore, she finally lands a job as a clerk in department store Everyman’s (which, the blurb assures me, is a thin disguise for Selfridge’s).
Why would a woman in love, in a city with plenty of employment opportunities, move hundreds of miles away from her new fiancé, I hear you ask? Well, it’s because the man in question is awful. To be fair, Hilary really does seem to love him, and we only get her letters (and delightful sketches), not his, so maybe we’re missing something. However, from these letters, it’s clear why she wants a bit of independence from Basil before she marries him. Basil disapproves of: women making their own living, especially if they don’t have to; flat-footed women; women who neglect their true obligations to engage in flights of fancy; women who eat in Dining Rooms; women who have petty, female concerns; women who demonstrate sentimentality when helping those who are in distress. In fact, Basil disapproves so strongly of women that you start to wonder what he wants to marry one for. This is a strange novel, in that you spend the whole time rooting for this supposedly happy couple to break up.
I can fail and start again. And with you to believe in my work, I could.
Only, now and then, I feel you don’t. Do try to. I mean, think of me as a creature, not just a possible wife who will persist in doing things to disqualify her. I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things. I wonder if you see?
Good-night, my dear,
You’d think that reading a book mostly composed of love letters to an undeserving man would make for grim reading, but instead it is delightful. Hilary’s personality fizzes off of the page. She is determined to have a good hard go at making it on her own, while retaining an awareness that she is cheating, because plenty of people don’t have the option to run back home to a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle the minute things get tough. Hilary is indefatigable through flooded digs, mice nibbling her slippers, the ostentatious pity of wealthy friends, Basil’s condescending comments, and the mediocre soup that makes up her primary diet. She has moments of doubt and despair, but comes rallying through them in a very admirable way. In all but her bleakest letters, her little sketches enliven her anecdotes, and that helps you to feel that she is laughing despite her setbacks.
I really loved the way this book dealt with money and class. One of the things that a lot of people who have grown up with money don’t understand is that it’s not just the day-to-day living expenses that you have to worry about, it’s the impossibility of building up an emergency fund and the general exhaustion of wondering how you’ll cope if even a small disaster comes along – if the buses to town stop coinciding with your work hours and you have to start getting the pricey train, or your shoes don’t make it through an unusually wet winter. If you’ve grown up always having even a small pot of savings to fall back upon, it’s very hard to understand that. Basically, we watch Hilary learn about how this experience shapes the way you view the world – what life is like for people who haven’t grown up with the privileges of class and comfort that she has. She is neither self-flagellating nor patronising – she’s just suddenly aware of this whole new world that was hidden to her before. Even with her new perspective, she’s still unavoidably aided by her class, connections, and degree. She gets promoted rapidly within Everyman’s over women who have been there longer – not necessarily because of talent, as Hilary herself acknowledges, but because the drudgery of low-paid menial work has not yet worn all the spark out of her, and probably because of various class indicators. This book is fascinating on topics like poverty and illegitimacy – a very interesting glimpse into 1930s London.
I have loved epistolary novels ever since I read PS Longer Letter Later, aged about 11. Perhaps my extreme fondness for the format coloured my opinion, but I don’t think so. Business as Usual contains Hilary’s letters and sketches to her family and to Basil, but it also contains intra-office memos, telegrams, parcel delivery notifications, and one memorable report of an investigation into food poisoning. It makes for an engaging and witty picture of life at Everyman’s, with each character’s personality reflected in their writing. Something about it conveys a wonderful sense of the texture of the company – all the little details that start to build up in any office. (I was in my workplace today, for the first time since March, and felt vaguely emotional seeing the extremely detailed guidelines about kettle usage. You know, that type of thing). That’s not to say the other locations are neglected – Hilary’s various residences are all depicted in a few quick sentences – but it was the business itself that shone for me. Per the introduction to this edition, H G Selfridge was so flattered by the fictionalisation of his shop that he provided the novel with an endorsement. It’s easy to see why. It seems like the type of place that you would ultimately like to work and shop, despite all its flaws.
Oliver and Stafford, between them, also have the knack of depicting experiences cleverly. A little section that stuck out to me was Hilary getting talked, somewhat against her will, into going for a swim in the public baths during winter:
Afterwards we went and had an enormous, crazy meal of tea and bacon and eggs and bread and butter and honey and plum cake at a small restaurant which makes rather a good thing out of dripping, ravenous people from the baths. I told Mary at least half a dozen times that life was worth living, and I meant to swim every Thursday evening for the rest of winter. And she was heroically enthusiastic every time.
But now my hair’s dry I shall have to go to bed. All my muscles are feeling stretched and warm, and I’m sleepy beyond possible resistance. It’s lovely to feel as well as this.
Who hasn’t felt like this after a swim on a cold, dark evening, followed by a big meal? I love swimming, and miss it – I haven’t been able to do it for a few years because of an obdurate ankle injury, and just as I was thinking about trying again, the plague came – and this just perfectly captures what it you feel like afterwards. All elements of the book taken together, it’s probably going to be on my favourites list for many years to come.
This is my first Handheld Press novel, but it won’t be the last. They reprint all sorts of old neglected things, many of which are not at all up my street, but some of which sound wonderful. I’m thinking my next purchase will be either What Might Have Been by Ernest Bramah, or The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim – but I’m new to this press, so if you have any suggestions let me know!