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‘Business as Usual’ by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford ****

I had wanted to get my hands on a copy of Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford since its reissue by Handheld Press. At a time when bookshops were closed during the long lockdown at the outset of 2021, and I was trying my utmost not to purchase anything online to add to my TBR, my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf, and I was the first to read it. Business as Usual was one of my most anticipated books of the year, and I am thrilled to impart that it lived up to my high expectations.

Published in 1933, Business as Usual is a ‘delightful illustrated novel in letters’. Its protagonist is twenty seven-year-old Edinburgh woman named Hilary Fane, who has a degree from the University of Oxford, and was recently employed as a teacher at a girls’ school outside Glasgow. Newly engaged, she insists on achieving her dream of moving to London for a year before her marriage, and is ‘determined to support herself by her own earnings’. Despite the ‘resentment of her surgeon fiancĂ©’, she makes her way to the capital, finding a room in a boarding house – named the Minerva Hotel, the many notices pasted around her bedroom have a ‘cumulative effect [which] is shattering’ – and spending much of her time searching for a job.

Hilary’s first foray into employment in the capital is as a typist at a London department store named Everyman’s on Oxford Street – ‘a very thin disguise for Selfridges’. Through ‘luck and an inability to type well’, she is transferred first to the book department – where she is initially refused employment because she is ‘too tall’ – and then into the library. She loves the environment in which she finds herself, and receives a rapid promotion. We learn about her, and her new London life, through a series of letters, which she writes to both her parents and her fiancĂ©, Basil. Other elements have been included when an overview is needed, such as memos between senior colleagues of Hilary’s, and a letter from her mother to her sister-in-law; here, she writes: ‘They’re not to be married for a year. I don’t approve of long engagements, but in this case Basil’s work makes one necessary, and Hilary is determined not to spend the time at home doing nothing.’

Almost as soon as she moves to London, Hilary meets some wonderfully eccentric characters, including an aunt of hers, who insists on taking her out for long lunches despite the fact that Hilary should be working. Her second interview before securing employment is, for example, ‘with a purveyor of Psycho-therapy. He had a perfectly normal (female) secretary, so that I wasn’t prepared to find him in a Biblical bath-robe, contemplating eternity in front of a Grecian vase with one lovely flower in it. I can’t think what my duties would have been, but the word “salary” shocked him…’.

From the first, Hilary is a highly positive young woman; she comments: ‘Almost any interesting job would do for a year. At about four pounds a week, I thought. After all, I’m not preparing to make a life’s work of it.’ I loved her enduring eagerness, and the way in which she presented herself. When she begins work at Everyman’s, and she is describing her new morning routine to Basil, she writes: ‘Half-way along the Lane I usually begin to run, hypnotised by that clock over the Staff Entrance. After that come the million stairs to the Cloakroom (Women Staff) so that I inevitably arrive on the Book Floor without a breath in my body.’

Business as Usual was the first joint literary venture between Helen Rees and Anne Pedler – the real names of Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford respectively – and I very much hope that it isn’t too difficult to find other books which they worked on together. There are almost one hundred of them, published either jointly or separately by Rees and Pedler, after all. I must admit that I will be avoiding their many Mills and Boon publications, though!

Notes on the novel have been provided by Handheld Press’ director, Kate Macdonald, herself a social historian. She writes that Rees and Pedler, who founded the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for young Commonwealth authors, ‘recreate with relish the working lives of single women in 1930s London, and the struggle to find work that was interesting, amenable and paid enough to live on.’ Of the structure of Business as Usual, she comments: ‘The letters are actively enhanced rather than merely illustrated by Ann Stafford’s line drawings, and by the original layout (reproduced in this edition) that simulates telegrams, in-house memoranda and private letters.’

Business as Usual is marvellously amusing, and quite charming. It is exactly the kind of book I enjoy – rooted so well in its historical and social context, but with a highly realistic protagonist, and infused with a great deal of warmth and humour. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively, and lovely, novel. I loved its tongue-in-cheek asides, and its memorable characters. Business as Usual would not be out of place on the Virago or Persephone lists, and surely holds a great deal of appeal for their readers.