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Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple is an interesting author in terms of the question - being discussed elsewhere on the board - of which authors whose works have gone out of favour ought to be brought back into the public eye.

Persephone have republished several of Whipple's novels; Virago refused to do so, in fact used the phrase the 'Whipple line' to refer to a minimum standard of quality - she was the benchmark for when the standard was too low, they would not go below the 'Whipple line'.  Allegedly.  Even Persephone, in their magazine, suggested that her prose was not of the kind you would want to hold up to the light and inspect too closely - I thought that was a lovely way of putting it!

Her prose is not the greatest - it lacks flair, and at times the sentences are a little clumsy, you have to read them two or three times before they make sense - but only at times, and mostly her prose is fine, if not the most sparkling.

Of the three books I have read, I thought two were excellent, I have to say, and on a par with things that Virago *have* chosen to republish.  High Wages and Someone at a Distance have been discussed on the board before; I found them both perceptively written, with good characterisation, and poignant insights into what it was like being a woman in early to mid-20C Britain.  Someone at a Distance (1953), which I think was her last novel, is the more accomplished of the two.

Her characterisation of women is very good; her characterisation of men tends to be quite two-dimensional.  She is generally writing very much about women's lives, and they way they saw the world as well as the way it treated them - it's not that she is unsympathetic to men, far from it, but her male characters never quite engage one in the way her female ones do, never quite breathe independently.

I have just finished her 1939 novel The Priory, a much less satisfying affair.  Had this been the first of hers I read, I would have understood Virago's slight shudder.  It is a family saga, set in the 1930s, and seems to have almost Middlemarchesque aspirations (and length), though it falls so far short of these that I did wonder how she thought it was worth publishing.  It does make you realise yet again how seemingly effortless George Eliot's brilliance was, but that's beside the point here!

Whipple simply cannot hold together all the threads of her saga, all the lives of the different characters.  There are potentially two or three separate novels trying to get out - or at least two or three strands that could have been made into individual novels far more successfully than the tangled skein she produced.

The widowed owner of a delapidated country estate, where he lives with his two daughters and his spinster sister, marries a rather younger woman in the hope that she will sort out the housekeeping and get them on an even keel - something it is clear that she is incapable of doing from the start.  The widower is a retired soldier, and longs for army life, not the stresses and strains of running a failing estate; his one remaining passion is cricket, and he hosts a two-week cricket gala, at great expense, every summer, and employs a full-time cricketer to help oversee this, a luxury the estate cannot afford.  So we see the lives of the newly married couple, the cricketer, some of the servants, the two daughters, and the sister, and the intricacies and intrigues of their relationship.  Ultimately the novel focuses on one of the daughters, who marries the son of a rich businessman - a contrast between the outer trappings of wealth amid the poverty of the landed gentry and the material opulence of the self-made man with his Lancashire accent.

There are moments of genuine poignancy - the way the women feel about the threat of war, and how it might take their men away from them, is well captured; yet the book, published as it was in 1939, assumes to the end that no war will take place, and this is intrinsic to the happy - if idealistic - ending.  There is a moment where the  married daughter's baby is gravely ill, and in the aftermath of this the cook talks about the threat of Hitler - but then comes to herself and realises that tea for the wrung-out mother is more important...that sense of personal trauma being more immediate and also more practically solvable than the theory of a foreign threat is, again, beautifully done.  No doubt the outcome of the book might have been very different, however, had it been published a year or two later.

In all her books, Whipple deals with the question of a woman's independence, and what that meant at that time, and also the question of infidelity - how should a woman respond to her husband's or boyfriend's infidelity?  The unfaithful husband in The Priory is in fact sympathetically treated (the theme is more subtly and skilfully dealt with, I think, in Someone at a Distance, where it is more central to the plot); but infidelity is always on the part of the man, she doesn't write about female infidelity (perhaps that would have been too shocking), and so even in that sense there is a reinforcement of stereotypes.  

I don't really know why I am writing all this, except that she interests me as a writer.  At her best, she is subtle, perceptive, articulate, her focus on her characters being a real strength - she can draw the reader into the lives of her characters at once, and keep them caring; at her worst, she is more ambitious than her skills allow for, and lacks the subtlety of which we know she is capable.  The Priory is really rather a dull book about dull people, with flashes of insight but very poor structure and little to justify its considerable length.

A great writer?  No.  Someone worth republishing?  Definitely.
Klara Z

As you know from our previous discussions, Evie, I'm very fond of Dorothy Whipple, and I'm delighted that Persephone are reprinting her work. Oddly enough, 'The Priory' was the first of her novels that I read, and it was this book that prompted me to  look out for more of her books. (This was in the late 1980s, pre-Persephone, when there was still a copy of the book on the shelves of our local library!)

What I love about Whipple is her humanity, I suppose, and perhaps it was the perceived lack of a hard feminist edge that Virago disliked as much as her prose. Personally, I think they were being very snobbish about a writer who still has much pleasure to give a modern reader.

I think I must have read all her novels by now, apart from her first (the only one not in our local library's wonderful fiction stack!) Have you tried 'They Were Sisters' yet? I can highly recommend it, if only for the brilliant portrayal of a semi-psychopathic husband! (Played with villainy by James Mason in the film, although I think on the page, the character is more subtle than that.)

Klara, you are probably right about Virago not considering her writing feminist enough - though I have found the way she writes about women to be very insightful for a modern generation, in terms of conveying the realities of women's lives - that's what feminism should be about, in my book!  The kind of decisions women had to make, the way they were expected to behave, the balance of power in sexual relationships, the way society treated a woman who was deemed to have behaved badly, etc.

And as you say, an author who still has a lot of pleasure to give to further generations.  I did find The Priory weak, I have to say - but Someone at a Distance is, I think, a good novel.  I haven't yet read They Were Sisters, nor They Knew Mr Right, which I know Persephone also publish - I found The Priory in the library, and always snap up a Persephone novel I find in the library!  But I will read more of her work.
Green Jay

I've still got Someone At A Distance to read, and am looking forward to it. Thanks for these comments, Evie. Interesting to see the decisions involved in chooosing to republish a writer.
Green Jay

Green Jay wrote:
I've still got Someone At A Distance to read, and am looking forward to it. Thanks for these comments, Evie. Interesting to see the decisions involved in chooosing to republish a writer.

I've read this now, with great pleasure. I have posted about it under June Jollys - I should have put it here.

I found the main male character here rather more convincing than Evie finds Whipple's men. Perhaps because he's a rather shallow type anyway! But this is the only novel of hers I've read so far.

Fans of Dorothy Whipple might be interested to know that Someone at a Distance is the book under discussion on this month's Persephone forum:

Here's a link:----
Green Jay

Thanks for that link, Klara. Reading the review and all those comments brought the book back vividly for me. I think it is wonderful. Perhaps Virago did not want it partly because it is all too realistic, and has no good feminist role models...although, one could say, by the end...?


I was so frustrated when Ellen wanted a clean and immediate break and was too proud - stupidly so, to my mind - to take anything from Avery (although as she had potentially no means to earn a living or provide a home for herself and his children, I felt he should have been expected to make every effort to do so, in those days, and because the break-up was legally his fault). But I know women now who feel and act just like that. I was amazed at the speed of a divorce - I had thought it was much more difficult in that era. And though I was also frustrated at the way Ellen submerged her own needs and wishes in order not to ruffle or damage her daughter further, I was convinced that that was how she might behave. Everyone in the book seems to be "cutting off their own noses..." at this stage, and the depth of my frustration is probably an good indicator of how well Whipple is doing her job. The dizzy speed made everything dissolve so quickly with no time for rethinking or any chance to speak or meet and change their minds. Perhaps I had expected that thing that you get in old films - that last glance back just in time or chance final meeting that changes things - what an old romantic!  Sad  I thought Avery a convincing type of man - unreflective, self-confident, rather spoilt, complacent, easy-going just because things had never been hard for him, never challenged until now. But with a petulant streak that comes out under pressure and which his trusting and truly easy-going wife had never thought a serious flaw, because she is one of those honest people who hasn't a manipulative fibre in her being and cannot easily spot it or believe it in others. Whipple is good on Avery's few strengths and rather more weaknesses - about why he was an asset to the company and just what he brought to it. And about Ellen's belief that her marriage and her family were quite happy and safe - I didn't find this smug, it is only so from a cynical, outside viewpoint like Louise's. Ellen may be rather naive but only for the same reasons that Avery is complacent: they have never been tested by life, and so things can jog along very pleasantly with only rosy beliefs confirmed. There is  Katherine Mansfield story called 'Bliss' that in a similar way describes a woman's blissful thoughts about her marriage and household - one of those rare happy days when you actually notice and pinpoint your happiness - just at the point of discovering that this is so very far from true; but that is how life goes...and when literature captures that, it is being very truthful.

I can't remember if I've said all this before. Apologies if so. That's going on holiday for you! Softens the brain.  I shall certainly look forward to reading more of Dorothy Whipple's books

I read 'Someone at a Distance' quite a few years ago, and now (having looked at the shelf where I keep my small Persephone collection) I'm disappointed to find I don't have my own copy, although I've got all the other Whipples that they've reprinted. I'm very tempted to splash out on one--I've noticed that it's v. rare to find any Persephone books in 2nd hand bookshops--people must cherish them!

What I love about Dorothy Whipple (and this may be why she didn't endear herself to Carmen Callil and Virago!) is her compassion and the way she is far less judgemental and didactic than other writers of the period---ideology is not foced upon you, and the people come first. And thus Someone at a Distance ends on a rare note of forgiveness.

Someone at a Distance is the only one of her's I've read and it is still very clear in my mind. One of the things I liked about it was the general lack of selfishness of most of the characters - except, of course, for Louise. Perhaps Ms Whipple was trying to say something unkind about the French? However her parents were very sweet and I enjoyed how much they liked not having Louise around although they couldn't admit it. Louise's character was very carefully explained, however, and it was shown how life had soured her. Wasn't her relationship with the rather disappointed mother-in law funny!
Green Jay

Ann wrote:
I enjoyed how much they liked not having Louise around although they couldn't admit it.

Yes, me too. They doted on her but only when she had gone did they realise how uncomfortable she made them feel and how hyper-critical she was of them. I loved the way they relaxed into their little habits together. The French town was highly bourgeois and old-fashioned but was treated sympathetically, and as you say, Louise's motives and personality were well-explained. The insights into how each character saw the others were good. Louise found it easy to form a rapport with Avery's mother through a shared love for personal grooming (!) and couldn't see why Ellen had not had the nous to do the same. But Ellen wasn't that type at all, which was partly why the mother in law despised her. All these little insights really do round out the characters, even if they are only briefly sketched. Other writers don't always manage this. It helps us as readers to see the characters as similar to people we have come across.

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