#BookReview Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford @KateHandheld

Business As UsualAbout the Book

Hilary Fane, an Edinburgh girl fresh out of university, is determined to support herself by her own earnings in London for a year, despite the resentment 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).

Through luck and an inability to type well she rises rapidly through the ranks to work in the library, where she has to enforce modernising systems on her entrenched and frosty colleagues.

Format: Paperback (242 pages)                  Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 23rd March 2020 [1933] Genre: Fiction, Modern Classics

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Publisher | Hive | Amazon UK
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My Review

Business As Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford was first published in 1933. It’s an epistolary novel with the story told by means of telegrams and memoranda, as well as letters from Hilary to her family and to her fiancé Basil. As in the original, this Handheld Classics edition is enlivened by occasional line drawings of characters and events featured in the book, the work of Ann Stafford. Kate Macdonald’s fascinating introduction also provides background information on the development of lending libraries as part of the services offered by stores like Everyman’s. There’s also a useful glossary.

Just like those to whom the book is dedicated – ‘The People Who Work From Nine Till Six’ – Hilary Fane works long hours, first in the book department of Everyman’s department store and then in its lending library. It’s a life of repetitive work, solitary lunches, weighing up how to spend every shilling, travelling to and from work on crowded buses, as well as the surreptitious washing of stockings (forbidden by her hostel’s rules).

Despite this, Hilary is a prolific letter writer especially to Basil, who works as a surgeon back in her home city of Edinburgh while she is seeking a career and independence in London. Interestingly, the reader never sees Basil’s replies to Hilary’s letters, only her responses to those replies. I have to say that pretty early on I developed a rather poor impression of Basil as Hilary seems to miss him a lot more than he does her. In one letter she writes rather touchingly, “I wish I had you here. It’s such a waste being happy alone. Happiness won’t hoard either. It isn’t the least use trying to keep it for the next black mood. It won’t even keep overnight.” I was not entirely disappointed, or surprised, by the later turn of events.

The book subtly reveals the class distinctions of the time. For example, as Hilary observes when she is given responsibility for the ‘Fiction C’ section of the lending library, “The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/- a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath”. This also gives you a sense of the humour that runs through the book such as the scene in which Hilary’s Aunt Bertha makes an unexpected visit to the library or when Hilary is called upon to investigate the case of the rabbit pie. Later, given the task of suggesting improvements to the library’s exceedingly complex processes which are jealously guarded by its longer serving members of staff, Hilary’s findings demonstrate there is little ‘rational’ about Everyman’s Rational Reader Services.

Hilary’s letters and memos featuring the occasional use of capital letters to stress important points, such as an ‘Immense Concession’ or a ‘Momentous Step’, put me in mind of Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce, hence my ‘Try Something Similar’ recommendation below.

Business as Usual is a little gem of a book that is not only a delightfully entertaining read but provides an insight into a particular period of time and facet of everyday life. And anyway, who can resist a book set in a bookshop or library? Not this reader, certainly.

In three words: Charming, funny, spirited

Try something similar: Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce

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About the Authors

Jane Oliver was the pen-name of Helen Rees (née Evans, 1903-1970). After working as a PE teacher and as Clemence Dane’s secretary and learning to fly, Helen became a successful historical novelist. She was the widow of John Llewelyn Rhys in whose name she founded the John Llewelyn Rhys prize for Commonwealth writers from her own royalties. Ann Stafford (the pen-name of Anne Pedler, 1900-1966) also became a successful novelist. Together they published at least 97 novels. Business As Usual was their first joint book. They lived in Hampshire.

#BookReview Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson #ccspin @ourclassicsclub

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A DayAbout the Book

Miss Pettigrew, an approaching-middle-age governess, was accustomed to a household of unruly English children. When her employment agency sends her to the wrong address, her life takes an unexpected turn. The alluring nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, becomes her new employer, and Miss Pettigrew encounters a kind of glamour that she had only met before at the movies.

Over the course of a single day, both women are changed forever.

Format: Paperback (264 pages)                    Publisher: Persephone
Publication date: 1st February 2008 [1938] Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Classics

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My Review

I have The Classics Club to thank for selecting Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day as the book on my Classics Club list I should read for the latest Classics Club spin.

In the introduction to my Persephone Classics edition of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Henrietta Twycross-Martin sums up the book as ‘a very happy novel’.  She argues that, unlike Winifred Watson’s previous novels, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day with its ‘sparky dialogue, no dialect, and no turgid inner life’ demonstrates an author who has ‘found her style’.

The story unfolds over the course of a day starting at 9.15am when Miss Pettigrew is sent, in error as it turns out, to the apartment of nightclub singer Delysia LaFosse.  Straightaway Miss Pettigrew is jettisoned into Delysia’s complicated love life but – much to her own surprise – by adopting the personas of her many previous employers manages to rescue Delysia from one difficult situation after another. As Miss Pettigrew reflects, ‘How do we know what latent possibilities of achievement we possess?’

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a DayDelysia repays her help by introducing her to a number of her friends leading Miss Pettigrew to observe, ‘In all her lonely life, Miss Pettigrew had never realized how lonely she had been until now, when for one day she was lonely no longer’. (And if that doesn’t tug at your heart strings, I fear there’s really no hope for you.) Delysia insists Miss Pettigrew accompany her to a number of social engagements, resulting in a delightful scene in which Miss Pettigrew becomes a sensation at a cocktail party. If that wasn’t enough, she’s soon on her way to The Scarlet Peacock night club where Delysia is booked to perform (pictured right in one of the wonderful illustrations by Mary Thomson included in the Perspephone Classics edition).

By the end of the book, not only has Miss Pettigrew discovered a lot of hitherto quite unsuspected ‘frivolous tendencies’ in herself, I reckon she’s saved the day several times over as well. It won’t surprise you to know that, in this reader let alone anyone else, the utterly delightful Miss Pettigrew has just gained a new admirer.

In three words: Funny, lively, heart-warming

Try something similar: Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

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About the Author

Winifred Watson (1906 -2002) grew up in Newcastle and was a secretary until, in 1935, she married Leslie Pickering, the manager of a timber firm. She wrote ‘two rather strong dramas… but when they received a book that was fun they would not accept it. When they did publish Miss Pettigrew, I was proved right.’  Three more novels appeared, then after the birth of her son in 1941 Winifred Watson stopped writing and lived quietly in Newcastle for the rest of her life.