It's becoming something of a theme that almost every book I've written about recently is one that I should have read a while ago - but it's true of this one too. Somewhere between the dislocation of lockdown and suddenly feeling weird about reading something set in retail I really procrastinated on 'Business as Usual' until yesterday when I more or less read straight through it.
The first thing to say about it is it's really good. I can only imagine that there are other publishers who specialise in reprints of women's writing who are kicking themselves for not getting to this first - and if they're not they ought to be. It's a delightful book, funny, warm, quirky, and surprisingly relevant for something from the early 1930's.
It's an epistolary novel told through letters, telegraphs, memo's and a few other bits and pieces. The protagonist is a 27 year old woman, Hilary Fane, who has just got engaged to a rising young surgeon in Edinburgh. The engagement is to be for a year and she has decided to fill it by going to London and getting a job as she's just been made redundant from the library she's been working in.
Job hunting turns out to be harder than anticipated until eventually a very junior, and temporary, clerk's position turns up in Everyman's - a version of Selfridges. There's a bit I'd like to say about Hilary's personal relationships but they'd be spoilers so I'm going to focus instead on the retail side of the book which is particularly well done.
Maybe it isn't particularly surprising how recognisable the details of life in a large department store still are given that human nature doesn't change that much (and computerized systems don't always drive the efficiencies you might hope for), but one thing that really struck me is Hilary's graduate status. In one of my first tutorials as an undergraduate the tutor in charge (a PhD student who was also a manager in the local Dillon's) told us never to try and patronize book shop staff - they already had their degrees she said. So does Hilary, but it isn't much help to her when she's job hunting.
There is an expectation that people who work in bookshops (or sell wine) will be well educated - at least on the part of people who work in bookshops (and wine). To many people start working in them as students and stay after graduating. Increasingly that's also true of those working in supermarkets as better jobs fail to materialise. It's a particularly hard system on women. Initially shift work can fit well with other interests, later it works around childcare, and there's always the possibility of promotion. Unfortunately you soon hit a bottleneck - the way to get ahead is to move around the business which favours the young and commitment free.
Hilary starts out hoping to find a job that pays £4 a week, but ends up with one that pays £2 10 shillings instead. Her entire income is taken up by rent, transport, and eating which she briefly finds fun, and then a cause for some despair. But Hilary knows her situation is temporary. She has well to do, if not especially well off parents to return to and a solidly comfortable and secure middle class life waiting when she marries. It would be easy to make a joke out of her period of poverty, but the authors don't - instead making a point of discussing the bleaker aspects of a life spent working hard for never quite enough to get ahead on.
They're good on the unglamorous but sometimes surprisingly impressive behind the scenes systems that make a really big shop function, and on company culture. I got really emotional about how Hilary describes Christmas; "I've kept Christmas with the best but I've never provided it before. I hadn't an idea what December could be like for the people who did." If you've experienced this you know. If you haven't it is hard to describe as how exhilarating, exhausting, and hellish it can be.
There is a charming romance in here, and it's mostly a light and funny book, but the details and compassion for the working people it describes are what make it something so much more than a charming period piece for a lazy Sunday afternoons reading. I genuinely cannot recommend this highly enough.
Do have a look at the Handheld list Here