Though I now space them out, a new Persephone Books read is always a wonderful treat, and something to be treasured. When I first found out about this publishing company, through their publishing of Richmal Crompton’s Family Roundabout, I went on a bit of a rampage, and read lots. Though they cover quite a range of decades, genres, authors, forms – and, yes, some of the writers are even male! – there is something unmistakably Persephone about everything they issue, and thus something unmistakably great. The Closed Door and Other Stories, one of the latest batch of three, was no different. Nicola Beauman, who runs Persephone Books, very kindly sent me this to review when I made ingratiating noises in her direction – and, of course, I loved it.
Most aficiandos of Persephone agree that Dorothy Whipple is one of their major finds. Crompton and EM Delafield were already firm favourites with me, and I was delighted to see them come back into the light of day, but it is Whipple who has been the nicest new face. Though decidedly a domestic-fiction-writer, she demonstrates that this need not mean anything derogatory about writing style. Nicola Beauman has had to fiercely defend Whipple against some critiques over the past few years, mostly from people who, bewilderingly, have been against niche publishing in any shape or form – but just pick up Someone at a Distance or They Knew Mr. Knight and it is indisputable that Whipple needed bringing back into print.
The Closed Door and Other Stories is different from any other Whipple I’ve read, not least because it’s short stories rather than full-length prose. The first story, ‘The Closed Door’, is easily the longest – 75 or so pages – and the other eight are snapshots of characters’ lives. I read them all together at a fast pace, which probably isn’t the ideal way to approach short stories, and I must confess I found a lot of them to be quite similar – a daughter (always a daughter) is repressed by her selfish parents who expect her to act like a servant, and dismiss any academic or romantic ambitions the daughter has. I like that Whipple doesn’t aggrandise either of these ambitions over the other, but sees both as valid modes of self-expression and fulfilment. Anyway, as you read more of the stories in the collection this scenario becomes very familiar – but each story presents a different ending/solution/irresolution. ‘After Tea’ is an especially nice contrast. When presented together, the particular culminations grow even more significant, playing off against each other, and become less ‘closing’, as it were – more problematic, occasionally more triumphant.
Against the stories which fall into this mould, a couple stand out as really beautiful evocations of character and predicament – ‘The Rose’ and ‘Wednesday’ particularly. The latter is quite a brave portrait – a divorcee adulteress (though one coerced into it by her husband, we are led to understand) on one of her monthly permitted visits to her children. Agonising and realistic and a painful gem.
In case you hadn’t ascertained this yet – The Closed Door is a book definitely worth buying! Just spread the stories out a bit.