Published by Handheld Press
Publication date – 23 March 2020
Source – review copy
Business As Usual was first published in 1933. It’s a delightful illustrated novel in letters from Hilary Fane, an Edinburgh girl fresh out of university. She is determined to support herself by her own earnings in London for a year, despite the mutterings of her surgeon fiancée.
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). She rises rapidly through the ranks to work in the library, where she has to enforce modernising systems on her entrenched and frosty colleagues.
Hilary Fane is not quite ready to settle down to married life. She is determined to support herself for a year before she marries her surgeon fiance Basil. So she travels from her Edinburgh home to London. She eventually finds herself a job as a typist at Everyman’s department store. As her letters home attest, she discovers the liberation that comes from supporting herself.
I was utterly charmed by this book from the first page, or rather the first letter. I was immediately transported back to pre-war England, could feel Hilary’s trepidation and excitement, frustration and nerves as she went from travelling away from the family she has never left to the the often fruitless and demoralising search for employment and the unintentional wrongfootedness of starting a new job.
Hilary is unusual for her time perhaps, in that she is determined to live for herself, to earn her way and move from her family for a year before she settles down to married life. She is not subservient to her fiance, answering him back in slightly veiled terms. Though we only see Hilary’s letters to him, her responses show that he has been far from supportive of her stay in London. It slowly appears to the reader that he is more interested in his status and his feelings than Hilary’s and the reader sees how she comes to realise that with her responses.
It was a joy to read about Hilary’s stumbling ascent through Everyman’s, assisted as much by her inability and innocence than by any skill. In an age before the realisation of a free lending library, and at a time when the buying of books was out of reach of many, the Everyman’s lending library was a fascinating fictional insight into a standard of the time. When she starts out at Everyman’s it is not smooth sailing, finding it difficult to write the labels for the books to be sent out. She impresses Mr Grant, a director, who soon organises for Hilary to be moved, eventually to the library department. We glean from the few inter-department notes that intersperse Hilary’s letters, that Hilary has found a kindred spirit in Mr Grant, who recognises her strengths. It is those strengths of character that the reader sees revealed through Hilary’s correspondence.
This is about love and romance in the everyday, stripped back sense. There is Hilary’s journey to discovering that loving oneself is just as important and meaningful than romantic love. That the love she thought she had with Basil, the dour fiance, is not perhaps what it appeared to be and that respect is as much a requirement for a happy married life as money and affection.
Some may say there is an inevitability in the ending of the book. It is the ending that is needed and any other would have left the reader, or this reader at least, short-changed. I loved everything about this delightful book, from the first letter to the last memo. It is one that I know I will return to many times. The very definition of feel-good. Highly recommended.
About the authors
Jane Oliver was the pen-name of Helen Easson Rees (née Evans, 1903-1970), a Scottish pilot and Second World War ambulance driver. She lived in Hampshire, and wrote many successful historical novels with Ann Stafford (the pen-name of Ann Pedlar, also known as Joan Blair). Business as Usual was one of their first books together.