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.

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