Women’s History Month guest – Adele Geras, writing about Dorothy Whipple

‘Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.’ Thus Carmen Callil in an article in the Guardian celebrating the Virago 40th anniversary in 2008.

My immediate reaction to this was: ‘Have Carmen C and I been reading the same books?’ I couldn’t imagine why she had so taken against a writer whom I admired very much. Was she wrong or was I? In matters of literary taste, there’s no argument you can make to try and win someone over. We all have our blank spots. I, for example, am allergic to Tolkien. But Whipple? I could understand someone saying, ‘She’s not my kind of thing. I don’t like those sorts of books’. But to be ‘absolutely defeated’ by these novels? And to draw the infamous ‘Whipple line’ below which Virago wouldn’t venture? I didn’t get it.

My aim here is to persuade others that Whipple, in spite of a name that sounds like a brand of ice-cream dessert, is a writer more than worthy of their attention. I’d say she was astonishingly good and in surprising ways, too. Her novels are also enjoyable and readable. These are not qualities at which readers should scoff and, moreover, they are not to be taken for granted. There are highly esteemed books which are pretty well unreadable. It’s quite a relief to look at the first page of something and know immediately where you are and with whom and when. There’s no scratching of the head and thinking: Who’s saying this? What’s going on? When will things become clear?

Dorothy Whipple was not only a popular writer in her day but also a critically acclaimed one. Most of her novels became Book Society Choices and two of them (They Were Sisters and They Knew Mr Knight) were made into movies. Thanks to the admirable Persephone Books, whose beautiful silver-jacketed volumes truly do furnish a room, much of her work is now available. I’m going to discuss several of her novels, but before I do that, let me make some more general points about her work.

Whipple is a middle-class writer, and her subject is middle-class families. If you’re looking for deeds of derring-do, non-stop action, wars, thrilling landscapes and adventures; if your taste is for the experimental, the rebellious or the strange and fantastical, you’d be better off trying another writer. Whipple’s stories concern mothers and children, sisters, husbands and wives, and she is very good at delineating other relationships: with in-laws, with servants (and even not very rich people had live-in help in her day) and especially with those who intrude into a household in different ways and somehow wreck the careful balance that has been established there. She loves the daily detail of life: the food, the clothes, the running of a house, be it large or small. She is brilliant when it comes to financial matters, and They Knew Mr Knight has as its subject what happens to a family when money becomes all-important. Each novel has a moral, though it’s never overtly stated. Whipple sometimes uses her own belief in a benevolent God to provide comfort for her characters and an ending that might be deemed less than happy is made to seem better because, we are told, God is taking care of matters. I don’t regard this as any kind of barrier to my enjoyment.

Whipple may have an ice-cream name but she is neither sweet nor bland as a writer. Never less than acute, she’s sometimes positively Austen-sharp in her perceptions. She sees right through pretensions and often has a great deal of fun (there’s much to laugh at in even the most serious of her novels) at the expense especially of minor characters. Schoolteachers, neighbours, tradesmen, peripheral men and women on the fringes of the books, are as real as the main protagonists, without toppling over into caricature.

I particularly enjoy writers who pay attention to things like dress, jewellery, food, houses and gardens, but do not be alarmed if you think you hate that stuff. Whipple doesn’t go in for long descriptions which tire you out before you’re at the end of a paragraph. Rather, she manages to convey precisely what everything looks like and feels like in the most economical and deft of strokes.

Finally (and this is the most important thing of all about any novelist’s work), she makes her main protagonists come to life on the page and engage our emotions. We care deeply what happens to them. Occasionally, when truly ghastly things are going on, it’s very hard to read the words in front of you without holding your breath until matters improve. And sometimes, for some people (these are not cosy books) things get much, much worse. It’s also worth saying that while love is a very important part of Whipple’s subject matter, she is never sentimental and her style, whatever she’s describing, is never overwrought. She’s the least hysterical of writers, but that makes the emotional punch behind her words even stronger.

They Knew Mr Knight was published in 1934. This novel concerns Thomas and Celia Blake and their financial difficulties. It sounds as though it might be dull but that’s far from the case. The eponymous Mr Knight is in fact the Devil, though the allegory is subtly handled and what happens to each character is both fascinating and constantly entertaining. As an incidental pleasure: this novel includes one of the best and most amusing portraits ever of an irritating neighbour. Mrs Greene is a snob and a busybody. She is also jealous of Celia. At the lowest ebb of the Blakes’s fortunes, when Thomas has been arrested for fraud, we have this:

The arrest of her next-door neighbour was a godsend to Mrs. Greene. She was so absolutely in the know. To be able to tell everybody on the way to town, to sit in the café and tell it all over again, to walk home meeting fresh people and tell it again! She was quite exhausted and had to lie down after lunch before going out to tea and telling it again.

They Knew Mr Knight
is a story rich with event and incident, astute about the effects of poverty and wealth, interesting about what goes on between colleagues and neighbours and outstandingly sensitive in describing the nuances of family life: the problems which actually seem to grow out of the deep love you have for those closest to you.

In 1939, Whipple published The Priory. It’s a book in a genre I particularly like: the story of a house, Saunby Priory, and its inhabitants. The lives of the Marwood family, the way they’re bound up with the place, the financial difficulties involved in the upkeep of such a property, the upstairs/downstairs aspects of the story, and what happens to the protagonists, make for the sort of novel where drama and conflict, just because they are set in a reassuring context, might seem less unbearable, and yet the emotional force of every relationship is well-described and dealt with fully. Also, when twins are born to one of the Marwood sisters, we encounter Nurse Pye, a positively Dickensian creation who takes over the household in an almost sinister way. The novel is absorbing and wide-ranging, and particularly good about the problems of adjusting to being a mother for the first time.

They Were Sisters first appeared in 1943. Parts of this novel are so harrowing that I found it quite hard to read in places. The story is a simple one. There are three sisters. One (Vera) is unutterably vain and self-absorbed. Another (Lucy) is ‘the good sister’, anxious about the others and always striving to do her best for everyone. She is also the happy sister: happily married and with no children of her own. This makes her the ideal aunt and it’s thanks to her that the young children in the book have any kind of life. The children of the third sister (Charlotte) in particular need shelter and protection because their father, Geoffrey, is one of the most odious, abusive and loathsome men ever to be found within the covers of a novel. There are moments of unspeakable bleakness in this book, but the main thing I will remember it for is Geoffrey, who is a monster in a completely different way from other abusive men you’ve met in fiction.

Someone at a Distance (1953) is my favourite of Whipple’s novels. It’s a story about an English family: Avery and Ellen North and their children, Hugh and Anne. Avery’s mother hires a French companion called Louise Lanier and she acts as a kind of serpent in this Garden of Eden. It’s another book where you want at various times to shout out to the characters: Oh, don’t do that. Can’t you see what the consequence of that will be? Why won’t you listen to him? Why don’t you say something, etc. And yet Whipple has such control over her story, over her characters, that you are drawn along, deeply involved with everyone, even the detestable Louise. She is a magnificent creation and in this book Whipple does a really good job of describing French life as well. Having the book set in two places gives it its title. ‘Someone at a distance’ refers to Paul, Louise’s ex-boyfriend. He scorned her while she was still in France and everything that happens in the novel is as a result of her trying to punish him for his behaviour. The Norths are simply pawns in her extended and unpleasant game. It’s a terrific book, full of anguish, passion, jealousy and remorse.’Proper people in interesting situations’ is one definition of a good novel. I think that Whipple’s books are precisely that. If Carmen Callil is of the opinion that they are no more than women’s magazine fiction writ large, I think she’s mistaken. Do try these novels and see what you think. I’m willing to bet you’ll agree with me.

I know Adele through The History Girls. I’ve admired her works for such a long time and was delighted to find her also talking hsitory. That’s why I asked her here – she walks the talk, and the talk is beautiful. She offered me a rerpint for this celebration and it was so perfect, I said ‘yes’ for the writers of everyday life show so many wonders, and Adele explains why. This opens up Dorothy Whipple’s books, but also many others. This article first appeared in a magazine called “Slightly Foxed” in 2005.

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