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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Canfield Fisher’

I have got quite good at acquiring Persephone books – you need only look at my Persephone page to see how the collection grows (I feel confident in one at Christmas too). However, I haven’t been so quick to read them of late – for no particular reason I can think of.  

In November I treated myself (that’s how it always feels) to reading two Persephone books. The first I was gifted at Christmas last year, the second I bought recently with a voucher I was given in May for my birthday. Six other Persephone remain on my tbr, one novel, four works of non-fiction and a slim volume of poetry, perhaps I need to make more effort next year.  

The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1930) 

I have already spoken about my physical difficulties with this large book – and for a little while that did affect my relationship with the novel. Thankfully I was able to overcome that, and once I had settled into the book properly, I enjoyed it enormously. There are images that I think will stay with me for a while, Canfield Fisher’s writing is very visual – almost cinematic. Set in the years before and during WW1 in the US and France.  

The Deepening Stream centres around Matey Gilbert (Matey is clearly a nickname – though it is never explained) one of three American siblings. Their childhood takes place in various American towns – following their academic father as he takes up new appointments, and France where he takes a sabbatical on two separate occasions. France comes to hold a very special place in Matey’s heart in particular – and her relationship with the Vinet family, who become almost as family while the Gilbert family are in France – is hugely important to her.  

Growing up, Matey and her two siblings Priscilla and Francis tiptoe around their parents – who continually seem to be on the edge of some unexplained battle. The children are scarred by their experience of living under such a cloud and witnessing this fractious marriage. Matey is saved by the love of her dog Sumner – and later by witnessing a scene between her parents that allows her to view them differently.  

Against all odds perhaps, Matey marries very happily. She and Adrian are of one mind, they think and act alike – Adrian even loves France as much as Matey. Two children come along, and then alas does WW1. Matey and Adrian are deeply distressed at the reports coming out of France as the war gets underway. They feel totally unequal to carrying on with their comfortable lives at home while war ravages the country and the people they love. Adrian is a Quaker – so there is no question of him joining the fighting, however in 1915 the couple make what to others seems like an extraordinary decision. Taking their two young children with them, they set sail for France. Here, Adrian will join the ambulance corps while Matey will give what help she can on the home front, staying with the fractured Vinet family who she first knew as a child.  

“‘There’s the dock where we’re going to land,’ said one of the passengers. They approached it more and more slowly. Matey ran her eyes over the people waiting. How French they were! Why did any group of French people look so different to Americans? There was a small, thin old woman in black, with a long mourning-veil, who was crying and waving her handkerchief at someone on the ship. Matey turned her head to see who was waving back at her. No one. She looked again the old woman seemed to be looking at her. 

With a shock Matey knew whose was that ravaged human countenance. Across the narrowing stretch of water, she was looking full into the eyes of Mme Vinet. It was her first glimpse of the war.” 

There is certainly plenty for Matey to do – she has some money left to her husband by an aunt to assist her efforts, Mme Vinet is a shadow of the women she was, her adult children scattered with no word as to how they are. Matey is a force of nature throughout the war, helping those no longer able to help themselves, she is indefatigable in her determination to save people (and especially children) from the poverty, trauma and starvation that the war has brought to so many ordinary, previously comfortable French citizens.  

The novel is a brilliant example of WW1 literature to sit alongside such books as A Testament of Youth.  

The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple (1936) 

In many ways there is a lot less to say about this book than there was about The Deepening Stream. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it really is quite wonderful – but because I can’t possibly do justice to the charming nature of it.  

Apparently, The Other Day, was a book commissioned in 1935 – published a year later – by Dorothy Whipple’s literary agent. It was not a book she particularly wanted to write.  

Dorothy Whipple was born in 1893 – and this book recounts delightfully her first twelve years. She reminds us – should we need it of all the horrors and pitfalls of childhood. How easy it is to get oneself into trouble with the grown-ups, how awful and miserable being taught by an unsympathetic teacher can be, how terrifying the illness of a sibling might feel. Her parents are presented as loving and sensible her siblings are lively and her grandmother is clearly deeply sympathetic and adoring but as children so often are, she frequently frustrated by the decisions that adults make for her.  

“I was aware, very early, of the power of grown-up people. With a word they could destroy your leaping hopes or deprive you of something you cherished with passion. They seemed not only tyrannical, but incalculable; you could never tell beforehand when or why they were going to approve or disapprove.” 

In twelve chapters – each focusing on a particular period in her childhood, Dorothy Whipple takes us to a bygone era, a simpler time perhaps, though one when a child may easily die from pneumonia. She races caterpillars with her siblings, pulls up all the flowers in her father’s garden to give to the old ladies at the alms houses, pays a visit to a hated aunt against her will, holidays in the Isle of Man and survives a miserable time at school before being sent to the glorious convent school. The family live in a Lancashire town at first, later moving to the country for part of the year. Here we witness again Dorothy’s love of the Lancashire countryside that she recounts so beautifully in Random Commentary.  

Children it seems are not so very different, whether they are born in 1893 or 1993 – those things that are important to children will always be the same. Dorothy Whipple reminds us of that, and I do think reading this and Random Commentary provides the Whipple fan with a fantastic portrait of the woman who gave us those fabulous novels and stories. All of which I suppose I shall just have to re-read one of these days.  

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