Hooray for the Cornish Library Service!
I read about this book somewhere, when I looked it up I found there wasn’t a copy that I could buy; but luckily I thought to check the library catalogue, and I found that a wise librarian had kept this book in reserve stock.
I placed my order.
I received a little gem.
This is story of Hilary Fane, the daughter of well to do Edinburgh family. She is engaged to Basil, a doctor, but the demands of his career mean that they can’t marry for a year. Hilary decides that she doesn’t want to sit around waiting, that she has time to have an adventure, and do she sets off for London to try her hand at earning her own living.
Finding a job isn’t as easy as she thought it would be, because though she a university degree and a great many other accomplishments, employers seem to be looking for experience of a very different kind. Hilary is undaunted, she carries on her quest, eventually settling for a job behind the scenes at a large department store standing in for a lady with appendicitis rather than face another visit to the labour exchange.
The job is less than scintillating, copying labels for books to be mailed out to account customers, but Hilary enjoys being busy and doing something useful. She makes mistakes, but she learns quickly and in time she makes some diplomatic suggestions as to how things might be done a little better.
Hilary does just as well on the home front, renting room from a friendly landlady, budgeting to make sure that her salary covered all of her expenses, and enjoying her new lifestyle without losing her appreciation of the world she had come from.
She wrote to her fiance:
“‘Won’t it be fun when you can get a weekend off? I shall make you take me out and provide an expensive dinner followed by Turkish coffee and old brandy. Then we’ll dance, and afterwards I’ll bring you back to my basement and give you herring-roes personally cooked over a pennyworth of gas. When will you come? Soon please.'”
He didn’t come, but she continued to share all of the details of her life with him in lengthy letters. The whole of this story is told in letters, most of them to said fiance and some of them to her parents. She tended to tell them of her mistakes and problems; only mentioning them to him only when everything had been resolved.
There is also the occasional memo, when Hilary did something that the staff supervisor had to report to her manager. Luckily he saw the value of the point of view of an untypical member of staff and that helped her progress through the organisation.
When the lady she had been replacing returned to work, Hilary was promoted to the sales floor of the book department. She loved meeting people but she didn’t really like being on her feet all day and counting on her fingers got her into trouble. The lending library suited her much better, and she learned how to play workplace politics there.
Hilary’s increased salary allowed her to move to a flat of her own, and an elderly aunt – who had spotted her in the book department and carried her off to lunch; an event that she had need all of her charm and wit to present to her supervisor as a positive thing – helped her to furnish it.
At first Hilary had struggled to balance her work and her life.
“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.”
Luckily, she got the hang of it in time; and when she bumped into an old school-friend who was also earning her own living, on her bus journey home, they started to make plans together and found that there was so much that they could do in London.
Hilary’s final promotion – becoming the assistant to the staff supervisor – gave her the role that suited her perfectly.
“It means getting back into the sort of organising work I really enjoy. Also, one comes into less physical contact with books and ink and labels and typewriters, which is so fortunate, considering how much I’m at the mercy of the inanimate ….
… I feel that I’m beginning to have an idea of the fabric of the business: it’s thrilling because everything’s woven into it; pots and pans and silks and carpets and wood and brass and sales books and typewriters and people’s lives.”
The story of this year in Hilary’s life is charming, and it is clear that its authors understood the workings of a big department store, and how it would strike a newcomer to that kind of world.
There are some nice modern touches – Hilary finds a book by Marie Stokes in the library, and she does her level best to help a young member of staff who is ‘in trouble’ and too scared to approach the staff supervisor – but not too many; this is a book very much of its time.
It is Hilary herself who makes that story sing. Her voice is wonderful. She is bright, she is witty and self-deprecating, and she is wonderfully interested in the people she meets and the world around her.
I was glad that while she was proud of managing on her weekly pay-packet, she realised that she was lucky to have choices and that life was often much more difficult to those who didn’t.
Her feelings and her progression – both at and away from work – were captured perfectly by her authors; and they were so very good at showing but not telling.
I can’t tell you a great deal about them, except that they -separately – wrote mainly historical novels, that Jane Oliver founded the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize in memory of her husband who died early in the Second World War, and that Ann Stafford provided some simple line drawings, credited to Hilary, for this book.
I suspect that this book is atypical, but I loved it more than enough to order another of Jane Oliver’s books that is tucked away in the Cornish Library Service’s reserve stock ….