Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford is charming. It’s light, intelligent, heart-warming, funny, and entertaining. It’s deeply interesting for the descriptions of shopping in the 1930s, and for its unflinching descriptions of social conditions, poverty and illegitimacy.
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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.
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.
Three months before publication, the first review was a five out of five cats rating from A Cat, A Book and a Cup of Tea! ‘It dives into the mundanity of everyday life, but thrives on the strength of its narrator and her witty skewering of the society around her.’
From the London Review Bookshop blog: ‘sometimes I accidentally manage to pick up a book so joyful that even my bleak outlook on life is momentarily altered … [Business as Usual is] told through her letters home and interdepartmental memos, and it will make you wish you still wrote letters, and lament the fact that, even if you did, they’d never be as witty and charming as Hilary’s.’
From Red Magazine online: ‘It pushed all my bookish buttons … This is my platonic ideal of a novel.’
From Dove Grey Reader: ‘I was delighted when it arrived tissue-wrapped to reveal that delightful cover. It was one of those to open at the breakfast table, start reading and carry on … If you enjoyed books like High Wages by Dorothy Whipple or Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola then you will certainly enjoy Business As Usual, not only for its wonderful insights into life in a London department store but also for insights into women’s lives in the 1930s.’
From Shiny New Books: ‘In the depiction of Hilary’s colleagues and the department store’s customers we get a wonderful portrait of 1930s retail, which included the important lending library that so many people of this period relied upon. It feels like a very realistic, faithful portrait – humorously depicted. This story of a year in Hilary’s life is absolutely delightful, Hilary’s voice is so warm, witty and bright she is immediately engaging. Striding out on her own for the first time, Hilary has to negotiate all the pitfalls of working in retail and living independently away from her family.’
From Katrina Robinson: ‘Business As Usual (published March 2020) by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, is dedicated to ‘The People Who Work From Nine to Six’, and has a gorgeous retro cover, this one reproduced from a 1932 issue of The Morris Owner (sort of like a 1930s Top Gear magazine), with in-line quirky line drawings by Ann Stafford. It’s the story of Hilary Fane, with newly minted university degree, recently engaged to be married, and determined to take a job for a year before the wedding to support herself. Told through Hilary’s letters to parents and fiancé, and through interdepartmental memos, the world of mid-20th century London retail life is brought into focus … Sharply observed, ruefully amusing, and a joyous rediscovery.’
JacquiWine said: ‘an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross Road. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history’.
Watch our video, in which we explain why this is a Selfridges novel, and how it’s about social history and the working lives of the early 1930s.