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.
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 WI Life, the magazine of the Women’s Institute: ‘fizzes with wit and verve. Its a fascinating insight into 1930s London life and the world of the department store and even earned the praise of Mr Selfridge himself.’
From the Sunday Express magazine, ‘The great charm of this book lies in the fascinating period detail evoking a bygone world, and it’s a must-read for fans of Persephone Books’ rediscovered classics.’
From the Times Literary Supplement, ‘part comedic workplace romance, part gritty social realism … The novel’s epistolary form (Handheld Press have thankfully reproduced the original layout, simulating letterheads, telegrams, shop memoramda, etc) together with charming line illustrations by Ann Stafford, make for lively and engaging reading, while also offering an exposé of the difficulties of single women in negotiating a pre-Second World War male-dominated workplace, trying to survive on low wages and even lower self-esteem.’
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’.
From bagfullofbooks: ‘This is just a lovely, lovely book. So endearing and just what I needed at this time.’
From Bookword: ‘It’s a very satisfying novel with some especially attractive features … The letters, memos and drawings all add to the charm … Hilary’s breathless and upbeat attitude carry her through the difficulties of having very little money in London and through the love story that emerges in these pages … Along the way we have learned much about the life of the working girl and what went on behind the scenes in big stores and subscription libraries in the ‘30s.’
From First Page to Last liked it very much: ‘I loved everything about this delightful book, from the first letter to the last memo. It is one that I know I will return to many times. The very definition of feel-good. Highly recommended.’
A Life In Books loved it: ‘a glorious piece of escapism … hugely entertaining. Hilary is funny and bright, her letters full of gentle fun-poking often illustrated with amusing line drawings’.
Desperate Reader was enthralled by the realism of the retail history: ‘good on the unglamorous but sometimes surprisingly impressive behind the scenes systems that make a really big shop function, and on company culture. I got really emotional about how Hilary describes Christmas; “I’ve kept Christmas with the best but I’ve never provided it before. I hadn’t an idea what December could be like for the people who did.” If you’ve experienced this you know. If you haven’t it is hard to describe as how exhilarating, exhausting, and hellish it can be. There is a charming romance in here, and it’s mostly a light and funny book, but the details and compassion for the working people it describes are what make it something so much more than a charming period piece for a lazy Sunday afternoons reading. I genuinely cannot recommend this highly enough.’
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.’
‘Business As Usual is an absolute gem of a book – I adored it! It has successfully secured its place as one of those books I will always treasure, and take great comfort in re-reading … a tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully atmospheric record of 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.’ – MegReadz
Read about Oliver and Stafford themselves in this review by Something Rhymed.
An Ealing book group read Business as Usual and sent this report: ‘It was great reading for this lockdown period – easy to read, not heavy but interesting and entertaining. Generally the portrayal of [the heroine’s] home life was more popular than the office-based scenes, particularly as the contrast to life for women in their mid-late twenties today is so very different. There was also a difference between age groups and how we related it to our own experience; I’m in my late fifties and it resonated with my early experience of working in an Oxford Street department store and life in a bedsit, but it felt more shocking to friends in their mid-forties.
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.