Business As Usual is an absolute gem of a book – I adored it! It has successfully secured it’s place as one of those books I will always treasure, and take great comfort in re-reading.
This book was recommended to me by author Cathy Rentzenbrink in her new book Dear Reader (my full review of which can be read here), so I’d just like to say thank you to Cathy for such a fantastic recommendation 🙂
An epistolary novel, written entirely in private letters, in-house memoranda and telegrams, with hilarious illustrations to accompany! Published in 1933, Business As Usual is a humorous yet acutely realistic account of urban life at that time. The majority of the letters are written by Hilary Fane, an Oxford University graduate from Edinburgh who is determined to make her own way in the world for a year, living on her meagre earnings in London – much to the annoyance of her Surgeon Fiancé. What follows is a tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully atmospheric record of her adventures job hunting, economising, negotiating public transport, surviving department store work and leisure time experiences, told in Hilary’s unique and engaging correspondence. Beautifully descriptive of society at the time, yet utterly timeless in its observations and as relevant now as ever.
Hilary is a sparky character, full of plucky courage, and her adventures offer many opportunities to identify (especially if you work in retail or customer service!). You cannot help but love her for her enthusiasm, laugh at her humorous comments and sympathise with her failures. I especially loved the details of daily life in 1930’s London, and her accounts of working in a bookshop.
The following quote is from Hilary’s first day in the Bookshop at Everyman’s Department Store (a thin disguise for Selfridges on Oxford Street):
Then he walked me up and down pointing out landmarks: the Cash Desk, the Pocket Editions, the Latest Fiction, the Select Books of Travel, and the two discreet shelves for the Classics and Marie Stopes. Somebody came up to say that one of his sales girls was ill (had gone to bed with a doctor’s certificate was the term used). But at that point a customer came in: Mr Salt intercepted her: Mr Hibbert took off his bowler. The day had begun.Business As Usual, Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford, 1933
I have to confess, I honestly laughed out loud on several occasions while reading this book. There was one letter in particular that stands out in my mind, about her trip to the swimming baths…! I tried to read it aloud to my family but ended up laughing so much I had to hand it to my sister to finish, and then we were all laughing so much we couldn’t breathe – I love the magic of books like that.
Hilary is incredibly perceptive to the unhappiness of others and her observations particularly highlight the depressing lot of single working class women at the time. Although it describes much of the dark side of working life, it was told with such spirit that I found it comforting in it’s honesty and a reminder to always try to see the funny side.
Can’t recommend enough.
Meg Readz xx