After the disappointment of struggling with a book I didn’t like, I needed to read something that I knew I would love. So I reached for a Persephone book – and Dorothy Whipple has never let me down. This was the last of her books currently re-issued by Persephone books that I had left to read. As expected it was lovely and an enormous joy to read, only now I have no Whipples to look forward to – and that is awful.
“The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen today; all the garden was deep in snow”
So starts this charming 1932 novel from Dorothy Whipple which is essentially about a family before and after the Great War. Louisa Ashton is a woman in late middle age married to the philandering Robert, with six grown up children. The novel opens at Christmas; Louisa has her enormous family around her, including her favourite grandchild Rachel who is just four. From the end of 1909 to the mid nineteen twenties ‘Greenbanks’ charts the ups and downs of this family, viewed through the eyes of the child Rachel and her adored grandmother Louisa.
There are familiar Dorothy Whipple themes in this novel, set against the backdrop of domestic middle-class England. Domineering bullying men, and the women, who are partially at least suppressed by them. Ambrose; Rachel’s father and Louisa’s son-in-law is one, inflexible and dictatorial. He and Louisa’s son Jim thwart Louisa continually in both matters of finance and her favourite son, the charming slightly feckless Charles – who they manage to send away – twice. Ambrose also father to three boys older than Rachel – has his own ideas about female education and behaviour. Yet we also have women – who are either supressed by convention and society or who bravely buck it. Laura the youngest of Louisa’s daughters marries a man she doesn’t love, and when later she decides to run off with another man she declares she doesn’t care for what people think of her. Letty married to Ambrose watches her life ebb away, finding herself married to man she once thought solid, and now is constantly irritated by. Letty awaits a legacy from her Aunt Alice, and when years later, it finally comes, she has as surprise for Ambrose, who has already decided that he should take charge of the money.
Kate Barlow who once had a child out of wedlock has had her life blighted by the stain of scandal and shame. She comes to Greenbanks as companion to Louisa – who having known Kate as a child is desperate to help her, but Kate has closed herself off from people – and is a sad pale shadow of her former self.
“Kate continued to be quite unlike her letters. When Lizzy was gone she made herself very busy in the house, going about her work swiftly and quietly, but without heart.
One evening when she was sitting with Louisa in the drawing-room, she let slip that she had never liked being a companion.
“I tried selling cutlery door to door. I went out sewing by the day and took sewing in. I bought a knitting machine. But I couldn’t keep myself,” said Kate, looking at Louisa with dark, discomforting eyes. “This is the only way I can keep myself”
“oh” murmured Louisa, fumbling in embarrassment with her knitting. “I am very sorry dear.”
However after a few years at Greenbanks, Kate develops a great affection for the new Vicar when she is about 40 – seeing in him her chance of happiness at last – but I won’t reveal how that story strand ends.
Rachel’s father prevents her from taking up a scholarship to Oxford, finally relents a year later, but the scholarship is gone and Rachel must be content to being a three times a week scholar at Liverpool, delighted she is allowed to study at last, but it comes a very poor second to Oxford.
The real heroines of this novel are of course Louisa and her granddaughter Rachel; it is through their eyes that we see everyone and everything else. They are real allies particularly against Ambrose and have a wonderful relationship.
Dorothy Whipple’s writing is straightforward and no nonsense, she is less showy and flowery than some of her literary contemporaries– and this says Charles Lock – in his excellent Afterword :
“account for Dorothy Whipple’s years of neglect, for the ill-informed dismissal of her name, on those few occasions on which it might have been raised.”
I love her books and the six novels and one volume of short stories that Persephone publish I know are enormously popular – and justifiably so in my opinion.