The latest Dorothy Whipple novel re-issued by Persephone, Because of the Lockwoods, will undoubtedly be another huge success for the publisher, Whipple remains enduringly popular, and it is easy to see why.
Although primarily domestic, Dorothy Whipple explores the different sides of human nature, not all her characters behave in a way we wish them to, yet they are very believable, and their stories very readable. As Harriet Evans explains in her preface to this edition, it is this very readability that has assisted in the rather snobby attitude to Dorothy Whipple in some quarters, a writer whom Evans longs to see have a kind of Barbara Pym rehabilitation to the world of literature. Dorothy Whipple writes about ordinary people, her characters drive the plots and have you rooting for them to come out on top. There is always something quite moral at the centre of her novels, something to inflame her readers’ sense of injustice, and yet Whipple never takes a moralistic or preachy tone, her characters speak for themselves and the wrong that is done them make the reader rage silently for justice and turn the pages at a furious rate. Because of the Lockwoods – is not a flawless novel, and not my favourite Whipple novel, that isn’t much of a criticism because it is still very very good, I enjoyed it enormously, hardly able to put it down.
Because of the Lockwoods, centres around two families, the Lockwoods and the Hunters living in the industrial Northern town of Aldworth. The two families live across a paddock from one another, the Lockwoods at Oakfield, the Hunters in the smaller but still nicely, respectable Hill House. All that changes when Richard Hunter dies suddenly leaving his wife and three children in very straightened circumstances. Mrs Hunter – who originally hailed from down south – had made a friend of Mrs Lockwood, but it is an unequal friendship, one in which Mrs Lockwood condescends to the meek Mrs Hunter.
“Although the matrons had been friends for years, they addressed each other as ‘Mrs’. When Thea asked later why they didn’t use their Christian names, Mrs Hunter said ‘We were never on those terms, dear,’ and Mrs Hunter and Mrs Lockwood they remained to the end.”
The division between them is widened when Mrs Hunter is made a widow, she is incapable of managing her own affairs and so Mrs Lockwood is happy to offer the services of her lawyer husband William Lockwood. Mr Lockwood reluctantly fulfils his wife’s promise of help, and in doing so, finds a way of helping himself, totally unknown by the hapless widow, and he also sets himself up as the Hunter advisor for years to come. In continuing to advise the Hunter family, William Lockwood tells himself he is more than repaying them for the small wrong he may have done, although he never quite manages to hide his scorn or irritation for the task he has taken on. The Hunters are forced to sell Hill House, and move to an ugly, cramped little house in a dead end street, where they hold themselves at a distance from their neighbours.
The Lockwoods are pillars of the community, Mrs Lockwood is very sure of her position, she enjoys running to the house in Byron Place to tell Mrs Hunter of the marvels her twin daughters Bee and Muriel have achieved, to give Mrs Hunter her blouses long past their best. At New Year the Hunters are forced to endure a party held just for them, for they are a good enough audience for Bee and Muriel’s concert, and will be grateful for the glorious invitation, and Mrs Hunter is. Martin Hunter even at a young age dazzled by the beauty of the youngest Lockwood Claire, and eldest child Molly is a sweet girl and doesn’t complain. It’s left to Thea the youngest to feel keenly the condescension that the Lockwoods dish out so unthinkingly. As Thea grows up, she is infuriated by their superior attitude, and depressed by her mother’s quiet obedience and gratitude.
As the years pass, William Lockwood manages everything for the Hunters, he tells Molly and Martin when to leave school and what to do. Mrs Lockwood arranges for Molly to undertake work for which she is totally unsuited, and which nearly ruins her with misery, and still Mrs Hunter is grateful for their condescension. Thea is allowed to stay at school a while longer, she is clever, her headmistress determined she shall be a teacher. When Mrs Lockwood boasts of how her three girls will be going to France to be ‘finished’ with the daughter of the local gentry – a connexion Mrs Lockwood sets great store by, Thea becomes determined to go too. Naturally with no money, Thea must go ‘au-pair’ to teach English, nevertheless Mrs Lockwood is horrified that the party is to be spoilt by Thea Hunter being a part of it.
“The young act, speak, think mostly in groups. Uncertain themselves, they follow the least uncertain among them. The Kenworthys from Nottingham, Anne and Nora, ordinarily two pleasant enough girls, at once took their cue from the Lockwoods. The girl in uniform was evidently of no importance. She was going to teach. She wouldn’t be with them. They needn’t know her, at least not properly. So they smiled indifferently, said how d’you do, and went on chattering excitedly to the Lockwoods”
The school is not quite what they had thought, the girls finding themselves in a small provincial town of closed minds, gossipy store owners and an inflexible school Direcrtice. Thus starts the war between Thea and the Lockwoods, the resentment that has been slowly building in Thea as she grew up knows no bounds following a scandal in France from which Thea must return home in disgrace.
Living in Byron Place just along from the Hunters is Oliver Reade and his mother and sister, a man of an entirely different class, he became smitten with Thea on sight, but Thea, is as proud as she is feisty and at first will have nothing to do with Oliver. Martin and Oliver have become friends, and Oliver has helped Molly to set herself up in a small shop. For Oliver represents the new breed of entrepreneur, he is rough and uneducated but hard working and full of ideas and enthusiasm, determined to raise himself and his family from where they began. In time, following her return from France, Thea begins to recognise the good in Oliver. Thea’s resentment for the Lockwoods has never diminished – it seems to fuel everything she does, and Thea just wants an opportunity to re-dress the balance, little expecting she may one day have the chance. There is a surprisingly dark element to the final few pages, which I wasn’t expecting, but this is a novel which will have readers sitting up late to finish.