Happy Birthday Dorothy Whipple!

someone_at_a_distance2
EPersephone’s Classic edition of Dorothy Whipple’s Someon At A Distance.

Dorothy Whipple famously – or perhaps infamously – was the novelist Virago refused to publish. Worse still, the company had a standard known as the ‘Whipple line’, below which they ‘would not sink’. Explaining her position in a Guardian article back in 2008, Virago founder Carmen Callil said: “Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.” Personally I think she was wrong, and it seems I’m not the only one, because Dorothy Whipple is now published by Persephone and has become their best-selling author. Even so, she still qualifies for a place in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors compiled by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, and since today would have been her birthday (Whipple that is, not Jane), I’ve scribbled some thoughts on Someone at a Distance, which I really enjoyed.

It is a heart-breaking account of the breakdown of a marriage, written with restraint, style and gentle humour. Here we have Avery and Ellen North, blissfully married for 20 years. He is a successful publisher and she is a happy housewife (I would be a happy housewife if, like her, I had help from two ‘half-day’ women who work on alternate days). Anyway, the couple live in a spacious house in the country, with a large garden, and a paddock for their daughter Anne’s horse. Anne, aged 15, is at boarding school, while her brother, 18-year-old Hugh, is in the Army, doing his National Service. The family are devoted to one another – but their idyllic life is about to be torn apart.

Nearby lives Avery’s wealthy, widowed, cantankerous mother who decides to employs Louise, a young Frenchwoman, as her companion. Louise has just been dumped by her lover (he married a woman with money and position), and is desperate to escape the boredom of the provincial town where her parents run a shop. Her favourite book is Madam Bovary, and we are told: “The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.” Louise is certainly not happy. It’s difficult at times to decide what she feels – anger, resentment, loneliness perhaps. She is beautiful, rather like a Modigliani painting I think.

Her face was as smooth as ivory and the same colour, her dark eyes slanted up a little at the outer corners. Her dark shining hair was parted in the middle and drawn into a knot on her slender neck. Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless became her and matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands.

But despite that – or perhaps because of it – people don’t like her. Her parents love

28279939_10210550118291619_9040304293623230884_n
The endpapers are from a 1940s textile design attributed to Ashley Havinden.

her, but are scared of her; most men in the town where she lives kep their distance, and she has no female friends. In England she alienates almost everyone she meets, but old Mrs North likes her – and Avery obviously finds her attractive (despite the fact she is making eyes at his son). Cocooned in her cosy world, Ellen fails to see the danger, but is relieved when Louise returns to France. However, shortly after this, old Mrs North dies, leaving a sum of money to Louise, along with her furs and jewellery, so Louise returns to claim her inheritance – and Avery finally succumbs to her charms.

Divorce follows and Ellen, devastated, sets about finding herself a job and somewhere to live, for the house must be sold. She is appointed as assistant manager at Somerton Manor, a local establishment where elderly ‘gentlefolk’ live out their days, which also operates as a restaurant. There she turns the old stable block into a home for herself and children and begins to rebuild her life. She proves to be surprisingly independent. She refuses to accept alimony. although she lets Avery pay for Anne’s schooling and the upkeep of the horse. She doesn’t see why he should have to support her, and is determined to make it on her own. But she never stops loving Avery.

For his part, Avery realises immediately that he doesn’t love Louise, but has no intention of trying to patch things up with his wife and children because he cannot bear to think they see him as flawed. Life with Louise is disastrous; he drinks too much, she spends his dwindling fortune and will not loose her grip on him. They visit France, where she hopes everyone will be impressed by his her luck in catching such handsome, wealthy man. But her parents, appalled that their daughter has broken up a happy home, warn that they will never see her again as long as she remains with Avery. Outside in the street is her old lover Paul, and Whipple tells us:

He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.

It’s like a tragic game of consequences, in which everything that happens can be traced back to this one man and his dalliance with Louise. Avery, of course, is unaware of this, but there is a kind of connection between him and is family and Paul.

I liked the way the story alternated between England and France, showing us events in both places, and helping to build a picture of Louise and what has happened to her in the past. Whipple is good at describing a character’s appearance and creating a portrait of their personality. Take Mrs Beard, the bad-tempered but good-hearted manager of Somerton Manor:

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance.

Mrs Beard has had a tough time herself, and thinks Ellen should take whatever money she can get from Avery. The novel was published in 1953, when divorce was less common, when women had fewer opportunities to train for a career than they do today, and when they were still expected to give up work when they got married. But their options were far greater than those facing women like Ellen and Mrs Beard, left on their own after 20 years of marriage with few resources and skills.

D’you know how hard money is to come by for women like us?” said Mrs Beard. “We’re not the new sort of women, with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands, Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty. My husband died and didn’t leave me a cent, so I had to work But yours is living and is bound by law to provide for you.

dorothy_whipple1-547x600
Author Dorothy Whipple.

In fact, I’m surprised at how many single women feature in the novel, all dealing with life in different ways. They may be minor characters, but they are there. The teachers at Anne’s school, educated, caring, kind but firm, seem to be happy and fulfilled preparing of girls for life in the modern world. Then there’s Miss Daley, old Mrs North’s housekeeper, and all the elderly ladies at Somerton (who all have a tale to tell), and Miss Beasley, one of Ellen’s ‘half-day’ dailies, who turns out to have been abandoned by her husband 30 years earlier, and proudly announces that she’s ‘not done too bad’. It’s an epithet that could be applied to all the single women in the book. Spinsters, widows, abandoned wives, they’ve all set to and made the best of life on their own, which is a tremendous achievement.

It’s easy to be dismissive of writers like Whittle who focused on small-scale domestic issues, but it’s those everyday dramas that are so important in people’s lives, and she portrays feelings and emotions that we can all relate to. And there are bigger issues there about women’s roles in society.

Advertisements

Mother and Child Reunion

It’s been a while since I’ve posted my thoughts on any tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I certainly haven’t forgotten them. So here’s are two for this week’s Short Story Sunday. You’ll find there is a kind of loose theme, or link, in that both today’s tales explore the failing relationship between mother and child during a reunion.

Elizabeth Berridge.
Subject for a Sermon, by Elizabeth Berridge, studies the relationship between Lady Hayley and her son John, and the conflict between tradition and duty, and an individual’s independence. It is set in 1944 and opens as Lady Hayley addresses the Guides, on behalf of the Red Cross – on the very night her son is due home on leave. As her train pulled out, we are told, his train pulled in. And she must catch the early train next morning, because she has a meeting a meeting at noon, and John will understand.
Everyone thinks Lady Hayley is marvellous, for doing so much, and putting duty before her family, but she reminds me of EM Delafield’s monstrous Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers. They are both overbearing women who have created an image of themselves as busy, selfless workers which is at odds with the hollow central core within. And there are moments when you sense the faith of Lady Hayley’s adoring fans is shaken, and they query her motives. Miss Pollett, from the Guides, for example.
… she had a strange feeling that if the other coffee cup had not been on the table, the cap beside it, she could have believed herself alone in the room. And to allay the disturbing feeling that she could never get past that quick smile – to prevent it pushing her away – she asked about the morning train.
For Lady Hayley her duties, especially in war, are everything, pushing personal feelings, family and her own likes and dislikes into the background, and she cannot understand John, whose outlook is very different, and she tells him:
Always you see things in the wrong perspective. There are many things I do not like doing – Miss Pollett frays my nerves, I dislike long journeys made in uncomfortable circumstances, I am nervous when on a bicycle. But if I did not do these things, who would? It is expected of my position – our lives are not our own John.
But John believes she is wrong, and that she should let people organises their own schemes. And he realises she doesn’t really care about people, doesn’t want to know them and wouldn’t recognise them if she met them again. She’ll talk to them to raise money for the war effort, but she’s only interested in maintaining her own position, he says, and seeing that other people keep to their place.
I’ve lived among them, mother. I know what they think about people like us. I know what they’re like, and what they want – and it’s nothing we represent. We’ve had our chance as leaders of society, and lost it.
He can see that the world is changing, but I think the thing that angers and distresses him most about his mother is not her values, or moral code, or political views, but the fact she seems to have as little interest in him as she does in anyone else, and ignores him while administering to the needs of thousands of unknown men, and it’s this which causes the impasse between them.
During his visit Lady Hayley continues her relentless round of meetings, but she keeps the afternoon and evening of his last day free. However, it’s a gesture which comes too late, for he leaves earlier than planned, to meet an Army friend. The two part still unable to understand each other, and Lady Hayley pedals off to a meeting where, as usual, she preaches at her audience, telling them that in war women must be companions, mothers and organisers, and how this involves sacrifice, loss and pain. She stresses the need for solidarity and tells the women she feels ‘so much at one’ them… and once again we find Miss Pollett wondering, and wishing Lady Hayley really means it.
I hadn’t come across Berridge before, but apparently Persephone also publish Tell It To A Stranger, her collection of short stories, and she also wrote nine novels, which were very popular in their day.
Wednesday, by Dorothy Whipple is an old favourite – it’s in The Closed Door, an

Dorothy Whipple

anthology of her short stories put together by Persephone, which I reviewed hereand, should you wonder, I know this post is beginning to sound like a promotional piece for Persephone, but they do publish some exceedingly good books, and I do read lots of books published by other companies.

In Wednesday we meet divorced wife Mrs Bulford (she still refers to herself by her married name) paying her monthly visit to her three children, who are already beginning to forget (and, possibly, to resent) her, and are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, for their father has remarried.
She waits for the children outside the garden wall, and we learn that she is an outsider in every sense of the word, shut out from the home and family that were once her’s, and shut off from respectable society. For Mrs Bulford, ‘on the verge of middle age’ went ‘gallivanting’ with a younger man. When the affair was discovered her young lover’s family took him abroad, her husband (who she believes pushed her into adultery) divorced her, and she was deemed neither fit to proper to care for her children. Now, lonely and friendless, with nothing to do to fill her time, she cannot understand what has happened to her, and still harbours a forlorn hope that one day she will be able to walk back into her old life.
She was like an exile waiting all the time to go home, devouring news of the place she longed to be in. She bought the Beddingworth papers, morning and evening, and read every word, even the advertisements. She knew who was born and who died or was married, she knew who wanted domestic help or houses.
She knows more about the city and its people than she did when she lived there. What she doesn’t know is what her children are doing, how they are growing and changing, what they like and don’t like, and how they feel. But as she stands waiting to meet them she imagines them inside their house, eating their lunch. She takes to them to the park, and treats them to afternoon tea, but the relationship between mother and children is uneasy, and they are growing away from her – indeed, they are pleased to be reunited with their father and ‘mumsie’. As they disappear from view Mrs Bulford cannot bring herself to pass the house.
But later when the dusk was deeper, she passed it on her way to the bus. Elsie had just come out to pick up the hoop on the lawn. Upstairs someone was drawing the curtains, first at one window, then at another. They were all gathered in for the night. Everything was very quiet. Even from the gate she could smell the sweet peas. She walked away down the road.

Mrs Bulford may be a very silly woman, but it is a touching and beautifully written tale, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her watching life carrying on without her. Whipple’s writing is so understated – she really does ‘show not tell’ and doesn’t go in for big emotional scenes, but the details of the routine of family life are so perfect, right down to the perfume of the sweet peas, and it all highlights Mrs Bulford’s feeling of loss. 
The endpaper at the back of the book is
Cote d’Azure, a scree- printed cotton
furnishing fabric designed by Susan Collier
 and Sarah Campbell for Fidchbscher.

Short Story Sunday: Having a Lovely Time…

‘Ready?’ enquired Sheila, coming in to look her over. She herself was highly coloured, with dark curls, wet lips, green earrings and a full bosom. She wore a green gown and her black coat with civet cat collar.
Oh, Miss Spence, you do look lovely!’ cried Alice.
Sheila didn’t know what to say about Alice.
Her reaction is unsurprising because poor Alice, the central character in Dorothy Whipple’s short story A Lovely Time, definitely does not look lovely. She is wearing a black dress which hangs from her shoulders just as it hung from its hanger.
…in fact there was little difference between the two means of support, for although Alice was twenty, she as small and bony as a child…
An Eton crop was a very short,slicked
 back hairstyle, made famous by singer
Josephine Baker in the late 1920s.
Beneath it she is wearing her new woolly vest, with a piece cut out of the top so it will not show (but it does, as we discover later in the evening). Over the dress she places what she considers the crowning glory of her outfit: a strawberry pink, artificial satin cloak with a ruched collar, hand-made by her sister. She has used lots of powder, lipstick and eyeblack on her face, but doesn’t know what to do with her hair – so she lets Sheila persuade her to go for the Eton Crop look, plastering it with borrowed Stickit (which is like boiled starch) which causes the hair at the back of her head to rise’ like a stiff hackle’.
Alice comes from Ilkeston, but since moving to London she has taken to calling herself Alys, to rhyme with knees. Her job in an office barely brings in enough money to pay the rent for her small, cold room, and there is little left over for food, and none for luxuries. She never goes out and has no social life, since she has no friends in London. So she is delighted when Miss Spence (the girls in the lodging house address each other very formally) asks her to make up a foursome with two men for a night out, with dinner at a restaurant, and a trip to a  night club.
She sang as she took off her work-a-day clothes. Fancy Miss Spence asking her! It was most kind, because she hardly knew her really and yet she called her darling and asked her out to dinner and a night club. Oh, London life had begun! She had been lonely, she had been dull, she had been cold and felt the food at Vale House inadequate, but now the lights had gone up, the fun, the excitement, the experience she had come for were going to begin!
What Alice doesn’t realise is that she is ‘Hobson’s Choice’, and has only been invited because another girl can’t (or won’t) go. She has no social graces, no style, no conversation, and is shy, inexperienced, and unsure of herself, so an evening with Sheila and her smart men friends is bound to be a disaster.

Dorothy Whipple.
Finally the night ends as it began with Alice, her dreams shattered, writing to her sister. Unable to tell the truth about her lonely life in the big city, her inadequacy, and her fears that she will never fit in, she says the only thing she can: “I had a lovely time.’ 

In some ways, although their lives are very different, she reminded me of Julia in EMDelafield’s Holiday Group (another of the tales in The Persephone Book of Short Stories), desperately trying to convince herself that everything is wonderful. On the face of it Alice is more naive, but when it comes down to it she is a realist and is better able to face the truth about herself and her life, even though she is left bitter and disillusioned. She may fool her family back home, but she can’t fool herself.

The Persephone Book of Short Stories

More Whipple Please!

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.
Dorothy Whipple
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.