Whipple: High Priestess of Domestic Drama

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.


28 thoughts on “Whipple: High Priestess of Domestic Drama

  1. I have The Priory to read,the first book by Whipple that I am trying. I’ve heard good things about Greenbanks, and your review here is superb. I want to run out and buy this book now! Except Persephone Books is in England….so my catalogue just arrived from them, and I’m going to convince myself this is a super Christmas gift to me! lol

    I really like how you say Whipple is the high priestess of domestic drama, and how that everyday life is the enormous drama. It is. It’s hard to go into those quiet places to see it though – and I think Rachel’s reaction is the reaction much of the latter half of the 20th century, and now the start of the 21st. Would you say that Whipple’s characters show different stages of wisdom and maturity? It sounds like it, from your review.

    • Lol! I am a huge fan of Christmas presents to oneself, particularly bookish ones. Does The Book Directory ship Dorothy Whipple novels? Because I believe at least the postage would be free for you, then. They are such gorgeous volumes. I think you hit the nail on the head with that comment about her characters showing different stages of wisdom and maturity. The grandma/grandchild relationship is often to be found in her novels, and I think it plays beautifully with the generation gap, and how both sides actually appreciate each other’s insight when the distance between them is marked.

  2. What fun! It appears that my library has only three of her books and this is not one of them. I will have to put her on my “always remember to look for author X list” at secondhand book shops.

    • Whipple is hard to come by all over the place – your library is doing well to have three. Do try her one day, I think you would like her. And in the meantime, good luck with the bookshop hunting!

  3. Whipple is a writer of whom I have heard but never actually read. I can see I’m going to have to do something about that. Is this the best place to start or would you recommend anything else?

    • I have really enjoyed every book I’ve ever read by her, but for you, hmmm. I think I would probably suggest They Were Sisters, as that has quite a dark side to it that I think you might appreciate. Otherwise, her most popular book is probably Someone At A Distance. And that is very good too. I’d love to know what you think of her.

  4. Isn’t Dorothy Whipple wonderful? She truly is an author who has aged well. I wish I had had this post when I was reading Greenbanks, but reading your thoughts on it now totally brought the story back for me. This is perhaps my favorite Whipple book so far, though I still have a few on hand to read. I think I will have to buy myself a copy of this–am so glad Persephone has brought her work back into print. So glad you have championed her–what a brilliant post! 🙂

    • Yay for Dorothy Whipple! She really is an incredible writer, so deft, so sure, and so deadly with her effects. I feel like a puppet in her hands – the twitch of a string, one sentence like a gunshot and she can make me do anything – laugh, cry, hold my breath. So very happy that you love her too!

  5. I had not even heard of Dorothy Whipple until I started reading bookish blogs. The only thing I’ve read by her is Someone At A Distance, which was one of the best books I read that year. It was difficult for me to write about it, though. It was powerful yet understated. Is that possible? I’ll be searching for Greenbanks and anything else I can find by her.

    • I think calling Whipple powerful but understated is an excellent description. She never strains for her effects, but pow, they come at you right between the eyes. I am so glad to know you loved her, Grad. I think she’s amazing!

  6. I have only read two Whipple novels so far – Someone at a Distance and The Priory but I found them both extraordinarily absorbing and loved every word. I have They Were Sisters and They Knew Mr Knight waiting on my shelves, Greenbanks and High Wages are on my Christmas wishlist and I, who am generally disinterested in short stories, am coveting The Closed Door and Other Stories – my conversion into a Whipple fan is complete.

    • Claire, I am SO glad you love her – I would think she’d be up your street. They Were Sisters I thought was amazing, and High Wages was wonderful. I’ve still to read The Priory and They Knew Mr Knight. I’m not much of a one for short stories, either, but if it’s all I have left of hers to read, I will do so with pleasure, I expect!

  7. I really need to make time for one of her novels next month.
    I like everything you write about it. I like how such a seemingly insignificant piece of garment can become so important and what it symbolizes. While reading your review I was reminded of Katherine Mansfield. If she had lived longer and written novels, couldn’t they have been very similar?

    • Ooh that’s a nice idea. I hadn’t thought of the comparison, but she is a bit Katherine Mansfield-ish. There is something similar in the razor-sharp perceptions they both come out with, and the way they seem to slide into the quick of life, with economy of expression. I’d love to know what you make of Dorothy Whipple.

  8. My library did get me a copy of The Closed Door, a wonderful collection of short stories, but they got fed up of me requesting this (no copy in the whole of the county!) so I bought it, and it is on the TBR pile.

    • I do hope you love it! But to think that no library in the county stocks this – wow! Still, I consider Dorothy Whipple a good investment. I’m already looking forward to the re-reads.

  9. Sadly I have yet to read any of Whipple’s work but she is on my list. There are just too many books and not enough time.

    • I know exactly how you feel! But the good news is that you have Dorothy Whipple to look forward to one day, when the time is right. (Or that’s what I tell myself when the TBR looms too large!)

    • I know! And I seem to be particularly slow at the moment! But I think you will like her Lilian. She is a writer’s dream for the economy of her sentences compared to the impact she makes. And it all feels quite effortless. I’d love to know what you think of her.

  10. A friend visiting London last year offered to stop by the Persephone store to pick me up a copy of Greenbanks, which I’d wanted to read for some time, but came back instead with High Wages. I guess I should get to it pronto!

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