Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Whipple’

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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How difficult it is sometimes to talk about a book that I loved as much as I loved this one. A fabulous treat of a read for #ReadIndies month.

I have loved everything that I have read by Dorothy Whipple – everything that has so far been published by Persephone. Her novels and short stories remain endlessly popular among Persephone readers. Random Commentary however is not a novel.

This book is a compilation of pieces from Dorothy Whipple’s journals and notebooks. There is a note from the publisher in the front explaining their approach, and now I have finished the book, I am glad they chose this approach, it was the right one I think. The journals were kept intermittently by Dorothy, then years later she simply copied out extracts that she thought might interest her readers. Nothing was ever organised or dated – though of course it all runs fairly chronologically, therefore the title fits absolutely. Persephone decided to stick to Dorothy’s original intention and produce the book as a facsimile. Naturally some events give us an idea as to date, and as there a lot of mention of her writing, the publication dates of her stories and novels help us orientate ourselves as to where we are within the period of approximately 1925 – to the end of the Second World War. However, the majority of the time it really doesn’t matter to the reader (well certainly not to this reader) what year it was – I just revelled in Dorothy’s world – and loved every word.

In these extracts Dorothy Whipple doesn’t just reveal the writer she was, the struggles and the constant self-doubt, the highs, and lows, she shows us the world around her, and her appreciation of it.  

“I went to walk on the front. The day was ending, and over the vast expanse of Morcombe Bay, I saw hundreds – thousands of birds flying together. They rose up like a tree. They streamed like a long undulating snake. They wheeled, they became a whale, they threw themselves like a net over the sky, they settled like a dark mud bank. Such unison. Like a wonderfully trained choir, or corps de ballet. But who or what conducts them? By answering “instinct,” you don’t dismiss the mystery.”

This book is a delight for any Whipple fan – and perhaps best enjoyed by those who have already enjoyed her fiction. For those of us already familiar with her fictional world, it shows us something of the woman behind those loved stories. A woman full of self-doubt, as delighted as a child by glowing reviews of her books, a normal married woman, who happens to write very popular books and is on friendly terms with J B Priestly. She is indignant on her husband’s behalf when he must retire earlier than he’d like. They have a little terrier called Roddy who they adore, and when he inevitably dies, get another also called Roddy. She is an author often annoyed by the constant interruptions when she wants to write – interruptions she is certain no male writer would suffer, I think she was probably right there. An aunt, who is absolutely smitten by her pretty young niece, a child she loves having to stay and who she puts in one of her books.

As a reader she appreciated Rose Macaulay, and Katherine Mansfield is saddened by the death of Winifred Holtby. As a writer she is invited to events she find herself nervous of attending, finds herself chatting to H G Wells, finding him an easy, kind man to talk with, she liked him enormously.

“When on this lovely September morning, I went up for the paper and opened it, standing under the golden trees in the sunshine, I saw that Winifred Holtby was dead. I am sad, sad. So generous, brilliant, warm hearted, so young to die. I feel so sad as if I had missed saying something to her and now never shall.”

During the course of these extracts Dorothy and her husband Henry are living in Nottingham and decide to rent a holiday cottage in the countryside at Newstead, to spend weekends. Dorothy comes to love the peace of the cottage – often yearning to be back there, however, after Henry’s retirement they have to give up the cottage and the house in Nottingham and move to a house in Kettering. Generally never happier than when at home quietly, Dorothy is often obliged to travel a bit – London of course a frequent destination and she and Henry holiday in British resorts. So, we also find her in such places as West Runton, Cardigan Bay and Southampton and on trips back to her native Blackburn to see her mother, completley swamped by that feeling of home on hearing the accent of the railway porter.

“Thousands of incendiary bombs on London tonight. Terrible damage. Hundreds of homes, eight Wren churches, the Guildhall gone, and Dr Johnson’s house in Gough Square, which I always promised myself to see, and now never shall. I am sad, sad about London. One feels for it as if it were human, and very dear.”

As we hit the 1940s the war becomes a necessary backdrop to her journal entries. She reports on raids, and the news and the despair she and so many others must have felt. In the midst of which ordinary life goes on, her books and stories written, published, and reviewed. For this is very much a glimpse into the life of writer, although it’s wonderful to see so much of the woman she was too.

I am so glad that Persephone decided to republish this volume – in just the way Dorothy Whipple originally intended. Now all I long for is that they reissue her childhood memoirs too. That’s not too much to ask is it?

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Can there be, for the dedicated Persephone reader, a more marvellous thing than a new Whipple? Like many other Persephone readers; I was very excited when I heard there was to be a new, and sadly a last Whipple.

Young Anne first published in 1927 was Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel. With its Persephone release all of Dorothy Whipple’s books are finally back in print – why they remained out of print so long is a mystery. I envy those readers who have yet to discover Dorothy Whipple – though I will have the joy of re-reading them all.

There is no great drama in this novel – it is the story of life – Whipple’s characterisation absolutely drives this novel – which is still enormously compelling, told with huge compassion.

“How changed he was! How assured! A man of the world, this George, who had once been poor, bitter, crude. How changed they both were…”

Dorothy Whipple’s first novel – published when she was in her thirties – was very autobiographical. We follow the growth, education, life and loves of Anne Pritchard from the time she is just five years old through to a time when she is finally settled. We first meet young Anne sat in the church pew alongside the rest of her Lancastrian family, her middle-class parents, and brothers Gerald and Philip. Mr Pritchard is a stern, inflexible presence throughout Anne’s childhood – he stops short of being a bully, but his unsmiling, traditionalism feels quite suffocating.

“‘Anne, go back to bed at once!’
‘But I’m frickened,’ she whimpered, holding her cold toes in her hands to warm them.
‘What on earth is there to be frightened of? Asked her father impatiently.
‘There’s all sorts of things looking at me,’ she wailed. ‘Weary Willie and Tired Tim and things.’
‘Olive!’ Henry Pritchard protested angrily to the recumbent figure of his wife, ‘I absolutely forbid you to let the children have those vulgar comic papers.’”

Anne is instantly lovable, and thankfully not perfect – perfect children are not all that attractive. For Anne, the most important member of the household is Emily, the maid – who shows Anne such love that she becomes an alternative mother figure to the child – destined to follow her through life wherever she goes.

As a little girl Anne goes to a local school run by a couple of middle aged sisters. According to the wonderful preface by Lucy Mangan, this is one of the things in the novel that mirrors Dorothy Whipple’s own life. The school is closed when one sister dies suddenly – from starvation – it seemed that no one had realised they had no money for food.

In this novel Whipple’s peripheral characters are of equal importance, fully fleshed out they have a lot to tell us about the society that Dorothy Whipple was writing about. Whipple is always particularly clear sighted about societal differences – those petty snobberies and tender feelings that come between people when class rears its ugly head. Even as a quite tiny girl Anne recognises something in George Yates that is different – she hasn’t yet learned about class distinction – but she soon will. It is Mildred Yates – a child Anne rather admires – who makes it quite clear to Anne that her cousin George’s social position is not the same as hers. Mildred is a wonderful creation – even as a child she is something of a horror. Another superb creation is Vera Bowden Anne’s much older cousin, a pretty, unhappily married woman who loves to flirt with other men to make her disappointing life more bearable.

Anne’s parents decide to send her to a Catholic convent school as a day girl, she is practically the only protestant pupil, but soon learns to appreciate the kindly sisters and comes to enjoy her time there. As a very young woman Anne finds love and loses it, too young perhaps to fully understand the nuances and complexities of relationships. It is a love that she will not entirely shake off – later the past will return to threaten a fragile happiness.

A change in family circumstances means Anne must go to live with her dreadful Aunt Orchard soon after completing her education, the grimness of this is relieved by the faithful presence of Emily – who goes too – not forgetting the black kitten Onions. Aunt Orchard is a magnificently dreadful creation, petty, selfish and prone to extreme rages – her house is no kind of home to Anne – who hits upon the idea of a secretarial college course – to get herself out the house and secure some independence. Emily continues to be the most wonderful support she will endure almost anything for Anne’s sake, her slanging matches with Aunt Orchard are quite hilarious. She even loans Anne the money for her course.

“She thought with satisfaction how her position in the house had eased since she had been able to hand over fifteen shillings a week out of her salary, now twenty-five shillings, and make up what she considered the deficiency in mending and aspidistra washing and putting up with Aunt Orchard generally. The bread of dependence had been very bitter.”

We see Anne earn her first pay packet, make decisions for herself, enter into a more grown up (dare I say less romantic) relationship. By the time we leave Anne – she has changed – made mistakes and learned from them. In Anne, Whipple has created a realistically flawed young woman, one who we sympathise with and like enormously despite her faults.

I absolutely loved Young Anne – what a fabulous debut it was back in 1927 – and what a wonderful high for Persephone to complete their Whipple re-issues with.


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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.

Dorothy whipple

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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 lockwoodsBecause 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.

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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.

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Dorothy Whipple’s key theme – it is one with which most Persephone readers will (we hope) identify profoundly – is ‘Live and Let Live’. And what she describes throughout her short stories are people, and particularly parents, who defy this maxim. For this reason her work is timeless, like all great writing. It is irrelevant that Dorothy Whipple’s novels were set in an era when middle-class women expected to have a maid; when fish knives were used for eating fish; when children did what they were told. The moral universe she creates has not changed: there are bullies in every part of society; people try their best but often fail; they would like to be unselfish but sometimes are greedy.
(Persephone books)

(The lovely reproduction endpaper and matching bookmark)

Short stories are a funny genre – they seem to either loved or loathed – I sort of fall somewhere in between. I generally find modern short stories a disappointment – that is probably a bit of a generalisation I am sure there would be some I enjoy – however I do tend to steer clear of them. So many short stories written today seem to be a bit too clever by half, and suffering a bit of style over substance, the endings so often, leave me at least, with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. I do however find what one might call ‘old fashioned’ short stories a complete delight. Just before Christmas I read a book of short stories by Stella Gibbons, for me the simple well written stories were wonderful.
Having already read five of the six Dorothy Whipple novels re-published by the divine Persephone books – I looked forward eagerly to these stories – wishing before I had even begun reading that is was a fatter book. Like so many women writers of her generation Dorothy Whipple presents the worlds inhabited by her characters in a way that is instantly recognisable and familiar even at a distance of eighty years. Hers is a society in which a wife’s adultery means a ruined life, deemed unfit to have custody of her children she may see them once a month. A daughter is unquestioningly obedient to her parents – even If they are unreasonable or even cruel – she owes them that obedience, to do otherwise is unthinkable.
Many of the themes encountered in her novels are present in these wonderful stories. Marriage, society and family, the so often fragile veneer of middle class respectability. Not all the people in her stories are nice – some are downright horrid – many are sad, allowing life to pass them by. Yet Whipple treats them with affection – their flaws often bringing them to a better understanding.
The title story – The Closed Door – is by far the longest story in this collection – and one I found both sad and compelling. It is the story of an unwanted daughter and the suffocation of her life by her dreadful parents. Dorothy Whipple can also be darkly comic too however, as in the stories ‘Handbag’ and ‘After tea’ I have been trying to decide if I had a favourite in this collection – but I am not sure that I do – I loved each of them for different reasons. Overall it is Dorothy Whipple’s eye for detail and minute observations of life that I enjoy most. Her writing has a wonderful subtlety about it – pared down to the bone – she isn’t a writer to labour a point – it is clear and uncomplicated. It does appear that she has been over looked in the past. But I believe she was a wonderful writer and I thank goodness for Persephone for bringing her work to a wider audience.

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A 1930 novel by Persephone Books’ most popular writer about a girl who sets up a dress shop.

I have become a great fan of Dorothy Whipple – and have loved each of the novels re- published by Persephone that I have read.  Although prehaps not quite as powerful as Someone at a Distance, or They were Sisters, this 1930 novel is still brilliant. Dorothy Whipple’s portrayal of a northern mill- town around the time of the first world war is  wonderful, full of believable  characters and social commentary. The central character is Jane, an ambitious young girl, now alone in the world who arrives in Tidsley in 1912 to begin work as an assistant in a draper’s shop. Jane is quite a feminist in own way, she dreams of independence, and doesn’t baulk at casting an eye at a married man – which is something Dorothy Whipple heroines in later books would not have done.  This is a less moralistic novel than the other Dorothy Whipple novels I have read,  in many ways not a lot happens. Over the course of about 10 years we see Jane develop into a pretty savvy business woman, she makes some good friends, and achieves more than she could possibly have dreamt of when starting out. A really enjoyable read, and I hope there will be more DW novels published by Persephone soon.

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someone at a distance

From the Publisher Someone at a Distance (1953) was the first novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone Books published, although it was the last she wrote. We chose it because we think it is her best, an outstandingly good novel by any standards. Apparently a ‘fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage,’ Nina Bawden wrote in her Preface, yet ‘it makes compulsive reading’ in its description of an ‘ordinary’ family, husband commuting up to town, wife at home (‘Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife’). Disaster strikes when a young French woman visits (the scenes back in France are most beautifully described, with touches of Balzac or Maupassant) and calculatingly seduces the husband. He abandons everything for her; then there is no going back.

This really is a beautifully written novel.  The sad story of the ruin of a happy family, may seem like something we have read before. However Dorothy Whipple writes so well, and with such feeling, that the reader watches the slow crumble of this likeable family with real regret. Things build slowly, culminating in the destruction of a once happy family. By the time the novel reaches this point, the reader feels they know this family intimately – people who are never happier than when they with one another.  Warm and fuzzy scenes of family life are so idealised that they contrast sharply with what follows.  The scenes in France are a beautifully observed depiction of small town French life,  with all its petty snobberies.  This was an absolute pleasure to read, as with all previous Dorothy Whipple novels I have read.

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The Blakes are an ordinary family: Celia looks after the house and Thomas works at the family engineering business in Leicester. The book begins when he meets Mr Knight, a financier as crooked as any on the front pages of our newspapers nowadays; and tracks his and his family’s swift climb and fall.

Persephone publish 5 Dorothy Whipple books, four novels and one book of short stories, and it is easy to see why, her writing of families and their ups and downs their triumphs and disasters is brilliant. This is the third of the four novels re-published by Persephone that I have read. My favourite was They were Sisters, but this one is almost as good. I found it quite unputdownable really, it is nearly 500 pages long but I read it so quickly it din’t feel as long as that.

Celia is an innocent, a housewife and mother who knows nothing of finance, and understands even less. She is however a steadfast and true woman who supports her husband, and her children in everything, and she knows enough to dislike Mr Knight. Freda – the eldest daughter is rather selfish, although she longs for great things to happen to her, the reader can’t help but shake their head over what must surely come to pass, and pity her in her silliness. This is a very moral tale, in which those who aim too high have everything come crashing down, and who have to live with the results.

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