I was really pleased to get a review copy of this book, another long awaited short story collection by that much undervalued writer of the twentieth century, Dorothy Whipple. If you have ever looked at the Persephone collection of books, which now number 120, you will have heard of the great Dorothy Whipple. They now publish ten of her books, including eight novels and the rather good collection of short stories The Closed Door and Other Stories (Persephone no. 74). There has been much debate about why this novelist whose books were very popular when published is not more known today. Some have pointed out that the writing is too intimate, perhaps too painfully honest, so that the reader cannot help be drawn too far in, identify with the characters so much that they feel their sadness or frustration. Certainly that can be a difficulty with some of the longer novels; it is sometimes necessary to put them down and return to real life, such is the pull of the narrative, the emotions related. I would argue that such involving writing can be cathartic and necessary in a difficult modern world!
The title story, Every Good Deed is in fact a novella, published separately in its original form, and thus is longer than the other stories. It is about the “Miss Tophams (who) lived tranquilly at The Willows”. They live quiet lives full of good works and music; their lives are made easy by the efforts of their invaluable Cook, and everything is ordered and pleasant. Their lives are then invaded by the odious Gwen, and suddenly they have to deal with a girl of more realism, more up to date and grasping ways. They have until now lived in a dated bubble of mutual congratulation and innocence, now they have to deal with the reality of real life, financial demands, and teenage tantrums. I winced at this, the crash that was coming, the complete upset of a world. I could also see Gwen’s view, in an environment she had not expected, never understood, and it was to be anticipated, perhaps, that she would take advantage of in a day to day way. When she leaves, quietness and contentment descends once more, until her return brings a new life to the sisters. Their dilemma is summed up in one paragraph.
But nowadays it is different. The Miss Tophams were modern in that they were apologetic about what they thought to be right and diffident in condemning what they felt to be wrong, in case it wasn’t. The conversation that took place in Miss Emily’s bedroom that night…might have amused a sophisticated listener.
This is a story with twists that sadden and change the story from the expected, but also show a realism of a lifestyle challenged and changed by real life, and in which hope and loyalty can triumph.
The other stories, as different in many ways as possible, always feature at least one woman who is challenged by the choices and behaviour of another. Boarding house is a fascinating little picture of how one person is fated to change the complacency of many lives. Susan is so sad, but unsurprising. Miss Pratt is a delightful story of families and dependent relations which really appealed to me. The story that lingers is One Dark Night, even if the ending is a little contrived, which shows war as a nuisance rather than just full of grand heroic gestures.
The world of Dorthy Whipple is full of the small intimate details of lives lived which drag you in, and in these short stories sometimes trick you by diverting off in unexpected ways. Do try this book for pictures of lives past, but still real.
Persephone Books are available from several enlightened bookshops where they live on shelves, or directly from http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/ where you can easily get lost for many hours of bookish pleasure.