If anyone at Staffordshire’s library service should read this, please take note: you need more Dorothy Whipple. A request put through by the lovely staff at Tamworth has turned up one book, The Closed Door and Other Stories, for which I am very grateful, but I want to read more. What about Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr Knight, They were Sisters or Someone at a Distance?
The 10 short stories in this particular book were all taken from three collections of short stories published between 1935 and 1961, and they are all written in that quiet, understated, slightly detached English way that was so popular in the 1930s and 40s. There is little action, and the small details of middle class life and its social conventions take on significance, while major events pass almost without a comment. These are tales of underdogs, outsiders and people who have never fulfilled their potential. There’s an air of retinence, and people rarely display their feelings. For some life continues unchanged, but for others there is the chance of a new or different life, if they are prepared to grasp the opportunity.
In the title story we meet Stella – one of several downtrodden daughters who appear throughout the book. She has never quite managed to escape from the harsh, unloving regime imposed by parents who are determined a child will not alter their life. By the time her mother’s death frees her she still feels hopelessly constrained by the restraints imposed over the years, even when an old friend offers the chance of escape, and we cannot be certain that she will walk through the door and leave the past behind.
But in After Tea Christine, whose parents treat her as unpaid skivvy, has no qualms about leaving when they reveal she is adopted, and in Family Crisis Mr Parker and his wife Flora finally realise how much they love their daughter (and rekindle their feelings for each other) when she runs away with a married man. There’s a wonderful moment when Mr Parker seeks support from his solicitor son, who responds by saying: “If it had been a gentleman, I might have understood it. But a commercial.” The couple track their daughter down, persuade her to return home with them, and promise that things will be different – but will they?
We know nothing will change in Wednesday. Here a divorced wife pays her monthly visit to her three children, who are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, while she is shut out from the home and family, watching curtains being drawn and smelling the perfume of sweet peas drifting from the garden that was once her own.
I particularly liked The Handbag, where a forgotten handbag allows an aging, overlooked wife to take quiet revenge on her husband and his lover, and Saturday Afternoon was another favourite. In this, Mrs Thorpe and her daughter Muriel enjoy their Saturday afternoons eating chocolates and reading by the fire, unencumbered by George, whom they encourage to pursue his interests elsewhere. George may provide them with all their creature comforts, but they have ‘gone through him like an old suit’ (isn’t that an incredible phrase?). But one Saturday afternoon a policeman calls with tragic news for George, and the two women discover the exact nature of his interests.
The design for a 1930s dress fabric has been used
for the endpaper in Persephone’s edition of
The Closed Door and Other Stories.