Do books have lives of their own?
Last week’s read – a stern-jacketed, vibrantly-endpapered 1920s offering – sent my mind spinning back to a book I’d read at university. I couldn’t even remember its name, and very much doubted I still owned it. Still, any excuse to peruse my bookshelves (just as much of a pleasure as old photo albums and almost as rich with memory) and I’m sliding towards them.
Imagine my surprise to find the book in question right there – a softly-thumbed emerald-green 1967 pan books edition of H G Well’s The History of Mr Polly. I can’t have thought about it since writing a no doubt tremendously insightful essay about it in 2007. And yet here it was, having followed me dumbly, loyally in all my various abodes since University. I feel, sentimentally, like it has been quietly watching over my the while, cheek by jowl with more shouty neighbours. Or maybe it’s been having an excellent time – it’s kept great company. Its neighbour for 18 months or more has been a 3rd edition 1929 brick-dust coloured, linen-covered printing of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – imagine the chats! In my next life, bring me back as a book in an a-grade library. Early C.20th fiction shelf preferred.
I’d better tell you a bit about it because, let’s face it, The History of Mr Polly is hardly The Time Machine, or The Island of Dr Moreau, the flashy self-promoters of Wells’ oeuvre (which you should read immediately – they’re so weird! Races from the future, half-leopard people … worth a couple of hours of your time, I promise.) But to little old Mr Polly – It is fundamentally a better example than High Wages of the upper-working-class-midlands-1910/20s genre. Mr Polly, like the protagonist of High Wages, works in a haberdashery and feels general dissatisfaction with the restrictions of his class and prospects. Like Whipple, it’s earthy and amusing. It’s winding its little course when – bam! Unlike Whipple, Wells does this thing and shifts up a gear. Bam! Attempted suicide. Bam! What it means to be human and to yearn. Bam! Timelessness. Basically, H G Wells is a master. That he’s not read much these days is our loss.
But what of High Wages, you ask? Well, it comes from Persephone Books, a new publisher devoted to bringing out-of-print women’s fiction back to our shelves. You feel there’s some sort of metaphor to draw about the identical grey covers and jazzy endpapers within – but I’ll leave that to you. Because I’m feeling a bit guilty, as the correct reaction to this sort of venture is: “What excellent fiction. Truly, women have been overlooked in their talent.” NOT “Oh, reminds me of a better book. A Book by a man. A famous man. Read that, people, not this woman stuff.” But hey, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s no H G Wells.
It is, to use a phrase from its own introduction, a “shop-girl-made-good story” of the early twentieth century, in the provincial heart of Lancashire. Though a land of mines and industry, this tale is of a working world peeping into the prosperous middle class. Jane – a girl with grit and determination – goes to work in a haberdashery. With drive, initiative and humour she negotiates the privations and limitations of this life to expand her horizons and prospects. A book like this has value for its sheer English-ness, and more specifically, its Northerness – the moors, the sheep’s head, the Simnel cake, the gasping sophistication of Manchester. It is also, quote, “one of the most complete descriptions of the early twentieth-century world of women’s dress-shops and clothing available to the modern reader.”
He- hello? Still there? Snap? I know, I don’t care either. A more charitable description of its theme could be women’s entrance onto the working stage at a point in history with unprecedented, though limited, possibilities for self-improvement. But hey, I’m not on sales mode for this book. It’s a simple tale. And simple is all very well but what’s really clever is a simple tale that’s actually so much more. The fact is that The History of Mr Polly is more of a universal HUMAN book while High Wages seems stuck in being a women’s book. I can’t blame Dorothy Whipple. OR Persephone Books. But in my future life on a bookshelf, I’d rather be cuddled up with Mr Polly than High Wages. Says it all.