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.