One of the things that has always puzzled me about the Victory Press career books is that there is hardly any mention of Church in them. For those who don’t know, Victory Press produced evangelistic and evangelical Christian fiction. The career novels were published in the 1960s and were all written by Patricia Baldwin about whom I know nothing. I grew up in the presbyterian branch of the Church in Scotland and my parents were firmly in the evangelical wing of it, in which the idea of a conversion experience, either slow and gradual or dramatic, was accepted as a norm. So the basic premise of the evangelistic strand of the novels was something I understood as a teenager in the 1980s. But the lack of Church was, as I said, a puzzle; so much of our lives revolved around it.
We meet Shirley in the village shop where she is a general assistant. She’s fifteen and pretty bored with her life, feeling that she’ll be stuck with Mrs Maws forever and never given any responsibility. Her mother, because of some undefined condition, is confined to a wheelchair and Shirley is unable to look for another job as it would mean leaving her mother alone too much. Her father is a railway worker, working nights. We learn early on that Mrs Anderson goes to the Chapel (that’ll be non-conformist, not Roman Catholic) and one of Shirley’s tasks is to take her there on a Tuesday afternoon.
Things move quickly after that. Mrs Anderson goes into a nursing home for treatment, Mr Anderson transfers his job to be nearer her and the family moves to a big town where Shirley gets a job in Tomkins and Taylor, a department store. We hear about the training they give new staff and the chance to study part time at the local college; we learn about the stockroom, the staff pecking order and customer service. And Shirley meets the elusive John Putnam who fills more of her thoughts than is wise.
One day Shirley makes the terrible discovery that John goes to the Chapel. ‘John religious? He couldn’t be. A smashing fellow like that couldn’t be hoodwinked into all the rigmarole of church.’ From that, we understand that Shirley will become a Christian too and, of course, marry John. And so it is. A new girl, who is also involved at Chapel joins the department and through her Shirley is converted. The second part of the book is full of evangelism which is supposed to sound natural but, even to a believer, feels a bit artificial.
So that’s Shirley. It’s the first of the Victory Press career books I read and it’s not the worst but I can’t pretend that in literary terms it’s very good. There’s an imbalance in it; the first half is all about career and the second about faith and the two just don’t quite meld.