REVIEW: Business as Usual by Jane Oliver
Business As Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford was first published in 1933. It’s a delightful illustrated novel in letters from Hilary Fane, an Edinburgh girl fresh out of university who is determined to support herself by her own earnings in London for a year, despite the mutterings of her surgeon fiancé. After a nervous beginning looking for a job while her savings rapidly diminish, she finds work as a typist in the London department store of Everyman’s (a very thin disguise for Selfridges), and rises rapidly through the ranks to work in the library, where she has to enforce modernising systems on her entrenched and frosty colleagues.
Business as Usual is charming: intelligent, heart-warming, funny, and entertaining. It’s deeply interesting as a record of the history of shopping in the 1930s, and also fascinating for its unflinching descriptions of social conditions, poverty and illegitimacy.
A few times in the book, Hilary refers to “Anglo-Indians.” When I looked this up, I saw that historically it referred to white British people in India. The book was written in 1932 so this is how I think “Jane Oliver” meant it to be used.
Based on their algorithms, Amazon showed me this book. Intrigued, I requested a sample only to discover that the entirety of the sample was just background information on the two authors. Well, that was disappointing. Undeterred I discovered that Hoopla, to which I have a free subscription through my local library, had it. Finally I got a chance to read the actual novel as well as see the charming line drawings. I will be buying a copy in the near future.
Hilary Fane is a twenty-seven year old Oxford educated Scottish woman who doesn’t want to just fritter away the year long engagement she has with an up and coming young OB-GYN who is practicing in Edinburgh. Instead, after being made redundant (let go) at a local library due to financial constraints, she decides to head to London and look for a job there. The pickings are slim and after several ghastly interviews, she lands a clerk job at Everyman’s Department Store due to a worker’s medical leave for appendicitis. This was back in the day when this would necessitate weeks of time to recuperate.
In a series of wryly humorous letters home(which often include her delightful line drawings) to Basil (the fiance) and her family, Hilary outlines her plunge into the working world as well as her various rented rooms, bedsits, and apartment. She describes her Saturday outings in and about rural areas outside London as well as a weekend visit to an old (and wealthy friend) which reminded me a little of the setting of “Gosford Park.” There are also some interdepartmental memos which highlight Hilary’s (to her unexpected and to her colleagues the result of favoritism) rise through the ranks at work.
Hilary is from a more privileged background than most of her coworkers and in her comments to her family and Basil she shows that she is aware of this. She can leave in a year’s time to marry a man who will be able to provide a comfortable life for her while she can see the various age stages – from women her age through those who have endured this drudgery for a lifetime – of those who are stuck in these jobs until they retire. But she’s made the decision to stick it out and beyond a few care packages from home that she (gratefully) gets, she economizes and adheres to her £2.10 a week salary (I can’t even imagine trying to survive on that amount then much less today!). Hilary not only has sympathy for her fellow Everyman employees, she has empathy as well.
We never see the letters from home but due to her responses, we don’t need to. Her sometimes contentious relationship with Basil is obvious while it’s clear that her parents, while not enthusiastic, are supportive of her decisions. Hilary is open and honest about her strengths as well as her weaknesses, her triumphs and her failures. She is not a person who just wants to sit around but who is happiest actually doing something. Through these letters and memos the now vanished world of department stores chock full of employees (which reminded me of what I’ve seen in the movies “Bachelor Mother” and “The Shop Around the Corner”) as well as early 1930s London come alive. Hilary’s letters are also funny – very funny in a lighthearted and charming way.
“Business as Usual” is more a women’s fiction novel through which the threads of Hilary’s relationship with Basil (whom she does appear to love) along with her slowly developing boss/employee with Mr. Grant run. Hilary is intelligent, has vast wells of common sense, and can succinctly limn the characters and characteristics of her co-workers. Watching her as she grows and changes is delightful and I now intend to seek out more books by “Jane Oliver.” A-
This is on SALE now! Yes, I know $9.99 doesn’t look like a sale price but usually it’s $14.99 for the digital book.