There’s always a point in a Dorothy Whipple novel where I put the book down, stare into the middle distance for a while and murmur, ‘This woman is a genius’. In Greenbanks, an entirely unpretentious story of a family living at the start of the twentieth century, Letty is going to visit her sister, Laura. Letty loves to socialise and travel but her husband is a repressive spendthrift and she doesn’t get many treats. By scrimping and saving on the housekeeping she pools enough money to have a new blouse made for the trip, a fancy confection of white satin, with tight cuffs and little blue bows set alternately with crystal buttons down the front. When it arrives, wrapped in tissue paper, her small daughter, Rachel, is overwhelmed by its beauty. So they visit Laura, who has married a rich husband out of pique and is of course unhappy with him. The sisters have a lovely visit, and one afternoon, Laura announces that company will be coming to dinner. Letty dresses with care, Rachel in awed attendance, and then Laura arrives in full evening dress to call them downstairs. At that moment, Letty knows she is completely unsuited to an evening of such elegance. The shock, the embarrassment and pain, hastily dissembled, Laura’s guilty irritation, Rachel’s barely comprehending horror are all so exquisitely done that I read the conclusion of the scene with a cold tremor running down my spine.
It’s the simplest episode, this scene with the blouse, but it punches well above its weight. I daresay we all have our individual definitions of what makes great writing, but this is mine: it takes the wholly recognisable stuff of ordinary life and reveals the yawning depths of emotion underneath. And just because she can, Whipple does this effortlessly, sometimes in the space of the most casual of throwaway lines.
The great strength of Dorothy Whipple’s novels is her characterisation, and Greenbanks is fundamentally a story about the clashing interaction of characters in a large and close-knit family. The Ashtons live in the unremarkable Northern town of Elton and Greenbanks is the family home. Louisa, one of Whipple’s sweetest matriarchs, shoulders her burdens with compassion, patience and sympathy. She has a philandering husband and six grown children, all of whom cause her worry one way or another. She also has a beloved grandchild, Rachel, who recognises in Greenbanks the sort of serene, reliable, nurturing space that she doesn’t find at home. The relationship between grandmother and grandchild is a particularly tender one. As we follow Rachel’s development from early childhood to the age of 18, we have to watch her negotiate some tough trials of growing up, but always with the benefit of her grandmother’s love to guide and support her.
Whipple has a keen eye in this narrative for the constraints that fall harshly on women, and with the exception of Louisa and Rachel, the female characters are unhappy with their lot. Letty’s husband Ambrose stands out as the representative of many of the reasons why this should be. Ambrose is a good man, steady, faithful, hardworking and well intentioned, according to his era. But he is also pompous, repressive, mean, meddling and entirely lacking awareness of others. In Whipple’s stories the most troublesome characters are the most rigid ones, and Ambrose has a set system of orthodox values that include caring too much for public opinion and desiring all those around him to comply with his wishes. By halfway through the book I loathed him with a passion that had added piquancy as I could anticipate several of the disasters he would be personally responsible for in the pages ahead. Marriage was a lottery and often a prison, still, in the era Whipple describes, although a divorce will be one of the testing trials for the family.
One of the most intriguing characters in this story is Kate Barlow, a friend of the family who was seduced by an older married man, and abandoned when she was going to have his child. Kate left Elton in disgrace to take work where she could as a paid companion. As her family gradually leave her, Louisa uses this as an opportunity to bring Kate back into the fold. She has always felt guilty, as she was Kate’s chaperone at the time of the scandal. The Kate who arrives is not who she was expecting; remembering a glorious young woman poorly treated by fate, Louise is pained to receive a harsh and bitter middle-aged matron, who cannot forgive the world for having mishandled her. She is prickly and awkward, cold and reserved. The family is discomforted by her, but Louisa is determined to do what she can to bring Kate back to life. Once again, however, her good intentions towards Kate may not be as wise as she hopes.
Greenbanks is a more episodic narrative than any Whipple I’ve read so far. It creates a social microcosm for the reader, one clearly based in a distant historical time, but inhabited by people as real and recognisable as those around us now. Life is often cruel in her novels, but her characters find unexpected reserves of courage and stumble over unbidden recompense. The passage of time as it affects the family has an unrelenting drive to it; things happen, things stay the same. At the heart of Whipple’s novels there is, I think, an existential message about the hard truth of living that we can always find new ways to disguise:
Some dim comprehension of the courage, the isolation of each human soul, the inevitable loneliness in spite of love, reached Rachel. The room was quiet, the ticking of the clock the only sound. Rachel was aware, for a moment, of the mystery of herself, her grandmother, eternity before and behind them both. Then she jumped up. Youth will glance at these things, but hates to look long.’
You can keep your sensational family stories, your misery memoirs, your issue-based novels. Give me Whipple’s astute and compassionate evocation of the immense drama that is everyday life any time.