Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple – a writer writes of her life, times and writing

Dorothy Whipple – Persephone Books

Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple’s eight novels were very successful in the mid twentieth century, then largely disappeared from sight until republished by Persephone Books at the turn of the twenty-first. She also wrote many short stories, which Persephone has also republished in a collection. Last year they produced this book, which is a compilation of extracts from notebooks and journals kept from 1925 onwards (first published in 1966). It is a small book of only one hundred and fifty-nine pages with a Publisher’s Note that explains that they resisted the suggestion of adding dates to the text, opting for a facsimile of the original text as prepared by Whipple herself. However, as much of the book features the writing and publication of six books, they have listed the publication dates to enable a clearer view of when the extracts were originally written. As this edition is in the usual attractive dove grey cover with suitable endpapers, It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

“Random Commentary” is an undated continuous stream of observations, facts, emotions and comments about life for a woman in over a few decades. It features certain people such as Whipple’s husband Henry and other family members, illnesses and worries about relatives, and certain friends. It comments on plays viewed, meals eaten and gatherings attended. Of most interest to those who know and admire her writing are the comments about the short stories and novels she was engaged in writing, the difficulties she faced with constructing satisfactory novels, and reflections on the time spent on many other writings. Although it is undated, its progress through the 1930s culminates in the outbreak of the Second World War and the feelings that evoked the progress of the War and continues to the end of the European conflict, and thus it is possible to see when each section was written. 

It is fascinating to read how she felt about the short stories she wrote, often in one sitting, and where they were originally placed. I recognised several titles from “Every Good Deed and Other Stories” and it was interesting to see their inspiration. She was requested to write her autobiography , which did not come easily to her, and I was curious to know why Michael Joseph was so insistent. Whipple candidly writes “I don’t think much of the book myself. I don’t know whether it was a mistake to write it or not. Time will show”. “The Other Day” as the childhood autobiography was called seems to have been very interesting, though it only takes Whipple’s life up to the age of twelve, and Random Commentary seems to be the only other piece of autobiographical writing which she produced. Of most interest to readers of the latter will probably be the background to the novels, which is fascinating as she describes living with characters in her head, the concept of naming them, and deciding what will happen to them. I get the impression that the characters came first, and the plot came second, although there are interesting revelations about the setting of “The Priory”. 

Altogether this is a fascinating portrait of a writer at work, the influences she acknowledges, and the realities of her life outside work. She points out that being a woman her writing is sometimes delayed by the needs of domestic life, and she speculates if that would be the case if she was a man. There is an undramatic reaction to war, as she and her husband were largely observers rather than active participants, but she mourns the invasion of Poland “I can’t write. Fiction seems so trivial. Fact is too terrible”. Not that she does not realise the full horror of war, she is especially distressed by the Fall of France. She hopes that her writing “might make someone else forget the war for a little while.” This is a very readable book which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I recommend it to Whipple’s many fans, as well as those who are interested in the real lives of writers.       

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple – Persephone’s championing of a superb writer concludes.

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This book is the latest Whipple book to be published by Persephone, and it is the final one that they are able to bring out. It is actually Dorothy Whipple’s debut novel, originally published in 1927, and has the great merit of her obviously trying out the superb characterisation that marks out her later books. Her rediscovery by Persephone has led many to regret her relative obscurity as outlined in Lucy Mangan’s very personal and meaningful introduction. Her plots are basic and seem natural as they are so well worked out that they are never laboured, and in this book she is mainly an autobiographical storyteller. That is not to say it is in any sense tedious; while the reader is not chasing a whodunit formula she is intrigued to know what will happen to Anne next, or what she will cause to happen. The characters, always beautifully described, bring the reader along in the settings drawn from life, with all its petty irritations and small incidents. This is a novel of colour, depth and even smell, as the descriptions which run throughout the narrative feel so real.

The book opens with Anne as a child, gazing round her in church, subtlety allocating those around her their place in her world. It soon becomes obvious that her mother is disconnected, her father unrealistically authoritarian as far as she is concerned, and her only true supporter is Emily, the only servant in the house. She mothers the child, and later she is to be Anne’s true supporter throughout the vicissitudes of her young adult life. Anne is frequently obsessed with ideas, including the desire for a fish, which brings her into contact with George Yates. This relationship also becomes vitally important, though not in obvious ways. Mildred Yates is being brought up with another agenda from Anne, a suitable marriage to enhance her parents’ lives. The contrast in their lives goes deep, as Anne is depicted as so much more than a gratifying prettiness and clothes. Anne’s school experience at a convent is more than a school story, as the nuns are briefly but effectively described, and the nature of faith is felt and shown, rather than discussed. Aunt Orchard is a truly awful woman, but is restrained in her awfulness by a truly satisfactory revelation. It is not easy to see a happy ever after here, but be assured that as with Whipple’s other books the most obvious ending is not always employed.

I enjoyed this book; no great events, no great plot devices, just a simple story with many depths. The characterisation of Anne is gentle, understanding and realistic, and bears many of the marks of personal experience mined for a truthful book. While not obviously a feminist book; as Whipple was going on to write in “High Wages” about  the ways women could improve her lot, her careful drawing of various women and girls shows them struggling against the dissatisfaction of limited choices and their definition by men. Even an educated woman is forced to go without to give her son opportunities, and school owners lose much in an attempt to survive. Persephone’s choice of books is as always strong and never better than the complete books of Whipple, and I was very grateful to be sent a copy of this final volume. I recommend it for all those who want to read a sometimes painfully true picture of women’s lives between the great Wars of the twentieth century, but yet want to be amused by the impulsive and real girl and woman who discovers life and love from various people around her.


Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

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.

High Wages – A Persephone Book and The King’s Speech

Yesterday I wrote about my Persephone Book obsession.  Son 2 suggested that I at least mention a Persephone book every week. I did point out that I started reading them in 2004 and good though they are, I don’t have perfect recall! So Son 2 suggests brief comments rather than full reviews. So, a few comments about Persephone books will follow as I move books to get to those shelves. I don’t want a bigger house, just more wall space.

Oh, and I finally managed to see “The King’s Speech” yesterday. A lot of ladies of a certain age have been telling me that I simply must see it, if only for


Who was brilliant in it, of course. There again, so was everything else; the script, the design, the costumes…Geoffrey Rush was excellent. Jennifer Ehle’s accent was very Australian, given that she was Elizabeth Bennett to Firth’s Darcy once upon a time.  Her reaction to finding the queen in her house was brilliant, as was Rush’s fear of confronting his wife. A really good film, and well worth seeing.

Today’s book is Persephone no. 85, High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Jane Carter, a shop girl with ideas.

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Whipple is brilliant at creating characters. Jane could be boring and cause the reader to shout “pull yourself together”, or whimper into doing just what is expected of her. Instead she engergises those around her into action, she stands up for herself and she stands up for what she believes in. The First World War is a background that affects the male characters, but instead of just representing a slaughter ( which of course for many men, it was) it details how it widened their view, made them more aware of life and its possibilities and limitations, and affected their relationships with women. As in other the Whipple books reprinted by Persephone it does deal with love, but more in terms of how it differs, how it can change, but also how it can survive. This is not a tragic book, as it has too many other emotions of justification, loyalty, friendship and wisdom going on. When Jane does fight her corner in the shop it is cheering; when the constraints of new found wealth make people unhappy, like Mrs. Briggs, it is frustrating. The emptiness of life is chilling in some cases,while the descriptions of Jane visiting Manchester and London are memorable. One of Persephone’s best, and that is saying something…