Dorothy Whipple’s almost entirely forgotten novel High Wages
is one of the most compelling stories of personal initiative and entrepreneurship that I have read.
Left alone in the world with only fifty-two pounds in a savings account, Jane Carter decides to look for work. By chance, she arrives in town as a small local shop is posting an ad for a shop girl. She applies, and her pleasant appearance and cultivated manner get her the post.
The moment Jane begins her working life, she begins to blossom. Despite being expected to “live-in” in fairly dismal conditions, Jane loves her job. Thus, Whipple shares every detail with her readers. We know Jane’s salary and are updated when it changes, and we follow most of her expenses. We track her professional accomplishments from the moment when she has “her first real customer, and she was elated to serve her and to be on the way to earn[ing] commission.”
And we are with Jane at the crucial turning point, when she discovers her boss stealing her commission on a larger sale.
“Fancy cheating a girl out of ninepence!” cried Jane. “And him with his hundreds of pounds! He knows we can’t fight. He knows we’ve got to put up with whatever he does—all his dirty little sneaking ways! And he’s a fool to himself, too!” she burst out again. “Cramping his own trade! He cheats us out of ninepence and stops us from earning pounds more for him. Who’s going to bring out any ideas when he treats you like that? It doesn’t pay to have ideas here.”
Whipple uses this scene to make us aware of Jane’s remarkable instinct for commerce. She is not only outraged on behalf of her savings account. She is outraged on behalf of “business” in general, which ought not to be run this way, and on behalf of the customers who will not benefit from the good ideas that employees have no incentive to share. This moment pushes Jane to recognize and defend her own value for the six years she works in the shop, and eventually, to dare to strike out with a shop of her own.
That Jane is able to make this leap from shop assistant to shop proprietor is due, in part, to her friendship with her customer Mrs. Briggs, who has “married up” in life and finds Jane an approachable friend. It is she who suggests that Jane should accept a loan of 150 pounds and that they invest in a shop together, with Mrs. Briggs as a silent partner. But as Whipple makes clear, it is not just the money that makes this possible. Jane’s entrepreneurial spirit and keen business mind mean that long before Mrs. Briggs makes her offer, Jane knows precisely what her plan requires.
“I worked it all out once,” said Jane, “and I reckoned I’d just manage on a hundred and fifty pounds. You see, I could get extended credit from several houses. I should only have dresses and hats. No haberdashery for me! It’s a lot of trouble and there’s no money in it. . . .”
“How’d it be,” [Mrs. Briggs] said, “If I lent you the 150 pounds?”
Like all the best entrepreneurs, Jane has prepared for the opportunity before the opportunity exists. When it does appear she is ready to step into action.
I can think of few books that express the satisfactions of running a business better than this one. Jane helps us feel the sheer joy of owning something that has been brought into existence by force of the entrepreneur’s drive and vision.
She went out on to the pavement and looked again at her shop, with anxiety. The sight of it reassured her. It was a real shop; it was there; it was realized. It did more than reassure her, it filled her with the wildest excitement. She gazed with ecstasy at her name hanging in bronze letters in the window: JANE. She had always disliked that name for a plain, old fashioned one, and now it inspired her with the sharpest delight. Not only was it adequate, and, by a turn of fashion, modish, but it was a symbol. Under this name the venture was launched. . . .”
Even more so, we are invited to share her pleasure when the shop begins to profit, and she sees the fruits of her labors.
Her turn-over for the year was more than 3000 pounds. Three thousand pounds. She trembled at it. Think of it! And how many times had she paused, terrified by having started the business, terrified of going on with it. . . . But she’d gone on, dealing with things as they came, and here she was through her first year with more success than she had ever dreamed . . . it had brought her in two hundred and fifty pounds. That, when rent, rates, taxes, telephone, gas, and electricity had been deducted, and her own salary and Susie’s wages, was the clear profit she had made. And the same for Mrs. Briggs.
Jane has created something that is her own, she has transformed herself by so doing, and she has profited by so doing, both financially and emotionally.
When, at the end of the novel, Mrs. Briggs and her husband are about to be ruined by a
financial scandal for which they are not responsible, the moral goodness of Jane’s business
venture becomes readily apparent. Jane is able to save them from penury by returning their investment and all the accrued profits and interest due to them as partners in the shop. And Jane is able to say, “It makes me so happy to think the money’s done well enough in my hands to help you now.”
Entrepreneurship, initiative, independence, and the virtues of good friendships and good business partnerships: High Wages gives us all of these, wrapped in a compelling story of one young woman’s efforts to make her way in the world.