On my last trip to the Persephone shop in November the one book I absolutely knew I was going to buy for myself was Every Good Deed and other stories. It is the most recent Dorothy Whipple book to be published by Persephone – with stories first published in literary journals and other collections mainly in the 1940s.
What I hadn’t realised until I opened it to peruse the contents was that the first story Every Good Deed is a novella at 120 pages, I was excited at the idea of a really long story I could sink my teeth into. Every Good Deed spans a period of around twenty-five years, in the lives of two gentle, innocent sisters. The period is difficult to work out – perhaps it doesn’t matter much, though one sister does already own a car at the beginning of the novel and wears a mushroom hat. Neither of the world wars are mentioned, but I assumed the story to take place in the twenty five years before the second world war – the story first appeared in 1944.
The sisters at the centre of Every Good Deed are the Miss Tophams, Miss Emily and Miss Susan, already in their forties when the story opens. Left quite comfortable by their parents, the sisters live at The Willows together, getting along wonderfully well, each of them living their life according to their talents. Miss Susan manages the house and all domestic matters alongside their faithful cook while the elder sister Emily has her committees and public affairs. Miss Emily is capable and caring and the work she likes best is her involvement with the children’s home. It is the children’s home which indirectly changes their lives forever. The lives of the sisters have slipped along in the same quiet stream for years, they are very content with their lives, their friendship with Cook making her into more of a third member of the family. Their only brother James lives in London, keeping a distanced though not a too interfering eye on his sisters’ affairs.
On one visit to the Children’s home, Miss Emily meets a new arrival (the home has had dealings with this girl before) Gwen Dobson who is thirteen. The matron and her staff find her difficult to deal with, know her to be sly, manipulative little madam, wilful and disobedient. Miss Emily believes that the dear child merely needs kindness – and to diffuse a rapidly escalating situation late one evening Miss Emily takes the girl home to The Willows for the night.
“Before she disappeared round the corner, Gwen, clinging closely to Miss Emily’s silken waist, turned and put out her tongue.”
Gwen stays five years, and the sister’s lives are changed forever. Gwen is difficult, selfish and unappreciative, she rules the roost and the gentle loving sisters whom she now calls Aunt Susan and Aunt Emily continually find excuses for her. They arrange for her to be educated, but Gwen is eventually asked to leave. Gwen always knows how to find her way round the sisters, how best to take full advantage of their gentle, innocent natures. Their dear Cook, more of a friend than a servant, leaves in tears, promising to return if Gwen ever leaves them. The house, once a place of gentle, ordered calm, suffers in Cooks absence, as the sisters struggle to cope with Gwen. One day Gwen does leave, running off with a jazz musician when she is eighteen.
For a while everything returns to the way it was before Gwen arrived five years earlier, even their beloved Cook returns to The Willows. For a year, the sisters and cook live happily, shrugging off the previous five years, blissfully glad to have their old lives back. Then, Gwen returns, and this time she is heavily pregnant, producing a son within hours of her arrival.
“I’d no idea newborn babies looked like this,’ said Susan with awe and delight as she washed the child. ‘Why, he’s a person already. See the way he turns his head to look at us. We’re the first things he has seen in his life, Emily.’”
I won’t reveal any more of the story, but I found it hard to put down. One small criticism; the story could perhaps have done with a little pruning, but it’s a small point, and doesn’t detract from what is a very enjoyable novella.
The other stories in this collection – nine of them, are to my mind outstanding. I am not going to talk about all nine however. Miss Pratt Disappears is probably my favourite. The eponymous Miss Pratt is a downtrodden woman whose capabilities have never been acknowledged by the two sets of selfish relatives with whom she divides her time. Creeping apologetically around their houses, going to bed early, eating like a bird. One night she finds herself locked out of both houses on her change over day – and so Miss Pratt in desperation and with only a small amount of money – catches a bus to a place she was once happy.
In ‘Boarding House’, we see the happiness of several people at a small hotel in its first season, completely destroyed by one selfish woman. A woman, whose loneliness and boredom changes the mood of everyone and the atmosphere of the house.It is a superbly observed little story.
The shortest story is The Swan, just a few pages long, it portrays a single swan, whose mate has been killed. The narrator is desperate to save the swan from spiralling further into madness and grief. It is an unusual story to come from the pen of Dorothy Whipple. And I found it delicately moving.
“Then far away, down one of the waterways, I would see her coming, small in the distance, growing larger and lovelier as she came, swimming strongly towards me. When she reached me, she made little hoarse sounds of pleasure and ate bread from my hand. I had to be careful she didn’t take my fingers with it in her eager beak. I was proud to have made friends with her and naively thought I had consoled her for the loss of her mate.
I was wrong.”
One Dark Night is set during the wartime blackout. A woman who has so far avoided being out in the blackout emerges from a cinema, to find herself in complete and absolute darkness. She steps out in fear, alone, ruminating on the argument which has separated her from her sister, to whom she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Looking desperately for a chink of light by which to find her way, the woman stumbles along a street with shops hiding behind blackout shutters, and desperately opens a door.
This is a quite delicious collection for all Dorothy Whipple fans, and suited my mood perfectly in the dark days of late January when I so needed an escape.