Showing posts with label Dorothy Whipple. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dorothy Whipple. Show all posts

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

Greenbanks the novel is the story of the Ashton family of Greenbanks the house, a stone house of "no particular style or period" in the fictional Lancashire town of Elton.  We're plunged into full family life in the opening chapter, joining the Ashtons for Christmas dinner a year or two before the outbreak of the First World War.  Robert Ashton is the handsome head of the family, still an enigma to his wife Louisa; their grown-up children and grandchildren surround them.    The family's prosperity comes from the timber trade, and the overall picture is of solid, middle-class Edwardian comfort and ease.

Dorothy Whipple's narrative is episodic, perspective shifting between family members, and it shows how social change and family drama gradually erode that comfort.  Indeed, some of that comfort has been dearly bought: Robert Ashton is a committed philanderer and has brought his wife Louisa shame and humiliation, although she is no longer bitter about this, preferring to take pleasure in her children.  Death and war will bring change and conflict to the family, and there will be further disruption as the women of the family start to reject their husband's expectations and do more with their lives.  There's no real polemic here, however; Dorothy Whipple simply allows the family stories to develop, exposing the love and the resentment that often co-exists between relatives.

Louisa is the central focus of the narrative, but not quite the unchanging point in a changing world; she is capable both of weathering change and initiating it herself, and of disrupting convention in her own way, as when she takes a notorious local "fallen woman", Kate Barlow, to be her companion once all the children have left home.  Louisa loves Kate, but Kate does not really want her love or her pity, and Louisa's well-intentioned act does not end as she might have expected.  Louisa also loves Charles, her rather useless but charming son, and Rachel her granddaughter.  Rachel is the child of the century, living through the First World War as a schoolgirl and entering the 1920s eager for the new opportunities open to women.  I found Louisa and Rachel's mutually affectionate, uncomplicated relationship very moving, and Whipple signals their easy understanding from the first chapter, when little Rachel is enjoying her Christmas dinner:

She considered her grandmother, then removed the spoon from her mouth and, in spite of potatoes and gravy, smiled widely.  Louisa bent her head and smiled back.  moth wrinkled their noses slightly as if to say: 'Isn't all this nice?'
There is a lot of lightly ironic humour throughout the novel, especially at the expense of stolid, pompous Ambrose, Rachel's father, who "always had a great deal to see to", is given second-best cigars by his father-in-law, and is silently resented by his wife Letty, who persistently wonders why she doesn't like housekeeping.  Louisa also has a comic turn of phrase: Charles at the piano has, she considers, hands "as stiff and inadequate as a couple of pork chops".   Rachel's naive and enthusiastic interactions with the world are also often gently comic.  But sad and even tragic things also happen; Dorothy Whipple's flat, almost toneless style allows the narrative to express both humour and sorrow without awkward changes of gear.  The characters are treated with even-handedness: Charles is ineffective but loveable and eventually heroic; Ambrose becomes a high-handed Victorian father, forbidding Rachel from taking up an Oxford scholarship, but is an object of pity at the end of the book. 

With High Wages, this is the Whipple I've enjoyed the most, for its episodic style and its gentle interest in the lives of women throughout this fascinating historical period.  There are affinities, I think, with E.H. Young's William and Lettice Cooper's The New House, especially in terms of intergenerational relationships and the provincial setting.  The Persephone edition is, of course, beautiful and has a fascinating Afterword by Charles Lock.

Book Snob has written an enthusiastic review of Greenbanks; Lyn at I Prefer Reading wasn't so sure.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

It's Persephone Reading Weekend in literary blog land, hosted by cardigangirlverity and Paperback Reader, who have some tempting competitions for Persephone enthusiasts.  I've read all my Persephone editions, but I did have a Penguin edition of High Wages knocking about, and decided this was a prime opportunity to give it a try.

High Wages opens in 1912, when seventeen-year-old Jane Carter gets a job in Chadwick's, a draper's shop in the fictional Lancashire town of Tidsley.  Jane is bright and ambitious, and the novel tracks her successful progress at Chadwick's; the war is good for the drapery business, and Jane becomes a valuable employee, if a constant thorn in the side of cautious, dim Mr Chadwick.  Jane longs for a shop of her own, and thanks to her friendship with motherly Mrs Briggs, who has come up in the world but doesn't much like it, Jane is able to leave Chadwick's and set up her own dress shop.  In other ways, however, Jane's life runs less smoothly.  Her friendship with Maggie, who also works at Chadwick's, is lost when Maggie's young man Wilfred shows a preference for Jane.  Jane likes Wilfred, who works at the library and is well-read and intelligent, but her eventual passion is for Noel Yarde, a young solicitor who marries the local heiress.

Dorothy Whipple crams a lot of interesting stuff into High Wages.  Jane's progress and development are interesting in their own right, but Whipple also brings in the social constraint of small-town life, and the ways in which the Great War chips away at notions of rank. We get an insight into how a lively young man like Noel can be reduced to a silent, uncommunicative husband, hiding behind his newspaper.   But her main theme is that of business, and how business and its success and failure can have far-reaching effects on the personal lives of those who rely on it; it is the vagaries of business that really drive the plot.  Her characterisations have depth, and even when a character appears only briefly - like the seaside landlady that Jane and Mrs Briggs stay within Blackpool - she gives colour and texture to the depiction.  There are also some entertaining comic episodes, particularly Jane's regular battles with Mr Chadwick and the moment of high farce when she encounters a cad at the Tidsley Hospital Ball.

If I have one quibble about this book, it is that I was unconvinced by the ending.  I won't give it away, but Jane's choices at the end of the book seem slightly out of character to me.  I also thought the ending rather rushed, as if Dorothy Whipple had run up against her publisher's deadline, and hurried it to a close.  But in terms of interest and enjoyment, High Wages sits alongside Someone at a Distance and The Closed Door among Dorothy Whipple's fiction, and I can quite see why Persephone have published it.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Closed Door by Dorothy Whipple

Short stories exploring the themes of parents and children, especially the way parents exploit and control children for their own ease or pleasure. Slightly too keen on a happy ending, but the constraints of family life, especially for adult daughters reared to be used as cheap servants for their parents, were well-expressed. An interesting read with Singled Out in mind, showing how difficult it was for unmarried young women to make their own way in the world without their parents' support and consent, and with echoes of E M Delafield's Consequences, in which a mother's iron grip on her daughter is only broken by escape into a convent.