A STRANGE PHENOMENON.
A funny thing happens when I discuss books with my friends. We talk a lot about what we’re reading. Many of us are writers, so I suppose it’s talking shop, in a way. Mainly, I’m thinking of conversations with women, but on occasion this has happened in mixed gatherings, too. I mention the name of Dorothy Whipple and there follows a bemused and (to be fair) interested silence. No, no one has read her. Who is she? Never heard of her…
This dismays me. My friends are very literate. Literary even and yet , almost always, I’m the one who has to explain to them about Whipple. Many of them have gone on to read her books and they have all thanked me for pointing them in her direction.
I am an evangelist about Dorothy Whipple for reasons which will make up the greater part of this essay, but one question to which I have no answer is this: how does it happen that her novels (which are published by Persephone Books in the most beautiful way imaginable) have made no discernible mark on the Great British Reading Public?
One answer is: Persephone Books does not waste money on unnecessary advertising. The books have not been televised, (though goodness knows they’d make good television) They are not entered for literary prizes because they’re reprints of novels which first came out decades ago. For this reason, they are not reviewed in the press. They are not controversial, and they are in competition daily, even hourly, with the latest sensation to make into the public consciousness. Also, there’s this inconvenient fact: if someone one has heard of Whipple, it’s because they know that when Carmen Callil set up Virago, she famously said that there was something called ‘The Whipple Line’ below which she was not prepared to go as a publisher. In other words, Dorothy Whipple’s novels were dismissed as not being worthy of publication by Virago….for reasons which no one can remember any longer but basically, as I recall, that these works were deemed too easy to read and too undemanding to be of any great literary merit.
My response to this is a question: How wrong is it possible to be? And the answer comes back clear as clear: dreadfully wrong. In order to show why and how Callil’s judgement is flawed, I must describe for those readers who don’t know it, what Dorothy Whipple’s work is like. This is hard to do in a short piece but I’m going to try. I am going to attempt once again (I’ve written about this before, here and there) to demonstrate that those who haven’t read her are missing a huge treat.
The internet will give you the main facts about her life, so I’m not going dwell on the biography, but as a bit of sic transit gloria, I’ll note simply that in her day she was very popular indeed. Her books were Book of the Month, and so forth. One of them ‘They Were Sisters’ was made into a (not terribly good) film starring James Mason. She fell out of print and it was not until Persephone books began to publish her work that she was brought to the attention of today’s readers. And she does have many appreciative readers. She is, I think, the bestselling author in the ranks of those Persephone have rescued from oblivion, to our great delight and pleasure.
So why the lack of recognition? The first reason is: Whipple’s novels are DOMESTIC. That’s to say, they deal with families, and relationships and concerns (love, children, siblings, older parents, money and how to cope when you don’t have it, etc. working women, clothes, home making etc ) which historically have been bunched under the heading: Women’s Fiction. What this means is: many men don’t even try to read them. I can report that when they do, they are often as keen on them as any woman. My late husband was a huge fan and read every one of the novels and the short stories and I’m sure he wasn’t alone.
I cannot imagine why the domestic novel has such low status. We live in an age where women have a larger measure of equality than ever, even though there are, of course, sundry inequalities and injustices still in place. But the novels which get noticed, mainly, are those which deal with war, ideas, history, crime, horror, fantasy, almost everything, in other words that isn’t WOMEN’S FICTION. Under this latter heading you will find chick lit, sagas, mum lit, and a huge, spreading lake of Romance in all its guises. There are a few women writers, (Margaret Forster comes to mind) who still write intelligent novels about proper people in interesting situations, but if a woman does break through into the bestselling mainstream, it will generally be under a Historical, or Crime or Literary heading. The ordinary real life of contemporary women is still being written about, of course, but not many such books make it into the Bestseller lists. It seems that most people like to flee, in their reading matter, from all they know and rush towards the fantastical (Game of Thrones, and lots of other fantasy) the distant past (Historical) or versions of reality that most of them will never encounter: books about movie stars, big business types, the very rich, the very promiscuous, the very drug-addicted, etc etc. They like gruesome, Baroque killings in exotic places, not ordinary murders which are often shabby and squalid and do not reach levels of inventiveness that we find in a great many crime novels.
I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I am as fond of the outrageous as the next person, as long as it’s well written and about fascinating characters (Lizbet Salander of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes to mind) but I also love and am comforted by the existence of, novels that mirror real life and real people as I know them. I like the suburban and I make no excuse for that. I have nothing against the Middle Class. I don’t require obvious strangeness to make me aware of the truth of the saying: “There’s nowt so queer as folk.” This desire to lead a whole variety of different lives is one reason why I am so fond of Whipple. I can imagine myself inhabiting these houses, with these people. I will return to the matter of Whipple’s depiction of the Middle Classes.
Others have written learned articles about the ratio of men to women writers being reviewed in the press. Most books reviewed seem to be by men. On the other hand, space for reviewing of every kind has shrunk drastically over the last few years. The movers and shakers in the literary world are busy promoting the latest thing and there is only so much reading time available so fitting in a book that is published quietly and decorously with no huge razzmatazz is probably not going to happen.
Whipple’s novels have another mark against them from the start. They are not hard to read. You know where you are, what you’re dealing with, who the protagonists are from the very first pages. You’re introduced properly to a set of people and there are no barriers to your understanding. You do not have to puzzle out what the writer is doing. There are no tricks being played. You don’t have to go over a sentence to make sure you’ve read it correctly. You are plunged straight into a situation which is most often ordinary. There is not enough money, perhaps. How do we deal with that problem? Three sisters, devoted to one another, nevertheless have issues with one another and especially with some of their respective spouses. How do they cope? A prosperous son, looking for a companion for his mother, hires a Frenchwoman…what happens to everyone next? A young woman goes to work in a shop in a Northern town. What happens to her? Does she succeed? Who will she meet? Will she fall in love? A grandmother and her relationship with her granddaughter is the basis of one book; a big house is at the centre of another. It’s not exactly Lee Child. Nor is it John Updike. It isn’t noisy. It isn’t blustering. It isn’t headachingly clever. Nor is it the world of much modern fiction.
It has most in common, I think…and this is a large claim…with the work of Jane Austen. Like her, Whipple is interested in how people interact. She is often witty, like Austen. She’s ironic too. She’s got a quick eye and sharp tongue as well as a kind heart. But she spreads her social net much wider than Jane Austen. She is extremely good, for example, at writing about France and the French. She’s good at the daily grind of work and knows how commerce operates. She’s brilliant at children, who play a full part in the action of several of the novels.
Back to the Middle Classes. A criticism that’s sometimes levelled at Whipple is that she writes middle class books about middle class people. This is not entirely true. She manages, in each world she creates, to vary the kinds of people she’s writing about. She’s very good at the middle class, but also knows about being a poor young woman working in a dress shop. She knows about the agonies of not having the right thing to wear because you can’t afford it, and one of the more heartrending moments in They Were Sisters occurs when a much poorer sister is lent a blouse by her richer sibling. She knows a great deal, like Jane Austen again, about money and the corrosive effects of having both too little of it and too much. They Knew Mr Knight is the story of a family whose paterfamilias sells his soul to the Devil in order to be rich. And in They Were Sisters, she gives as good a picture of domestic abuse as any I’ve read anywhere. Here’s an understated, unhysterical, moment which nevertheless chills the blood:
“Charlotte, changing for dinner, put down her brush and paused. She was seized by one of her old impulses to run down, throw her arms round Geoffrey’s neck and implore him to let them be happy, to let them all be open and candid with one another, she, Geoffrey, the children, the maids. They could all be so happy together if only he would let them. But she took up her brush again. The last time she went down like that, he unloosed her arms and said with disgust: ‘Don’t fawn on me.’ Not once had any of these appeals succeeded.”
Another thing that might conceivably irritate a reader, though it’s one of the things I like best about Whipple’s writing, is her love of detail. You know exactly how her houses are furnished. You can see the clothes, the gardens, the rooms, the landscapes: everything physical about the world of her books is there in front of your eyes. This is a short piece from Greenbanks.
“Laura returned with the albums,massive with brass clasps and backs of stamped and padded leather. Rose took one on her knee and opened the stiff pasteboards, decorated round the inserted prints with painted sprays of rose and maidenhair, forget-me-not and lily.”
That album is so much there in your imagination that you can practically smell it.
Whipple writes about love a great deal but with no illusions as to the suffering and anguish it can cause. Someone At A Distance (possibly my favourite from among her novels) describes the progress and results of an adulterous relationship not only on the lovers, but on all the members of the family who are affected.
And in They Were Sisters, she has created possibly the most horrible husband in the whole of literature. Geoffrey, whom I have mentioned before, is a monster and Whipple doesn’t mince her words. She draws no veils over the agonies he causes his family, especially his children. There’s a scene where he’s almost ridiculously cruel to his son’s dog which is quite appalling and which, once read, will never leave you.
Here’s the thing about Whipple’s novels: her clear belief that she is telling a story designed to draw readers into her world does not lead her into the trap of sugaring the reality she describes. There are cruel, unkind, thoughtless and stupid people everywhere and Whipple gives them more time and attention than many other writers. She does this so well that every ‘baddie’ is seen as having other sides, other possibilities, other paths they might have taken. She does not quite believe, like Oscar Wilde, that fiction means the good end happily and the bad unhappily but she provides hope even in the direst of circumstances. Often, too, a seemingly unhappy ending turns out to have a silver lining.
There’s little more I can say without lengthy quotation, which is boring to read and which, taken out of context, would not do full justice to Whipple’s gifts. What I would say to sum up is this: her novels are perfect for anyone who likes to read about characters leading recognisable lives, in recognisable places, but lives and places most carefully, elegantly and perceptively rendered.