I’m continuing my informal project of reading the long-awaited books on my shelves – and since I know how lucky I am to have a copy of Random Commentary (1966) by Dorothy Whipple, I thought I should actually read it.
I remember vividly finding it in a bookshop in Falmouth. I’d had a hunt for it online, and knew how rare it was – and there it was, sitting with The Other Day (also by Whipple) on a shelf, and not very expensive. Dad couldn’t quite understand why I was so excited, or why I lunged for them – just in case somebody should appear from nowhere and grab them before I could get my hands on them.
That was in 2006. And now I’ve finally read Random Commentary, was it worth the wait?
Well, yes and no (as so often).
Those familiar with Whipple’s lifespan will know that she died in 1966, and this book was published from the journals she left behind her – which span from 1925 until the late 1940s. Whoever edited them has pulled out mostly entries related to her writing, which is wonderful, but has put them together without any date markers or sense of the passage of time – so we might go in a couple of paragraphs from the genesis of a book to its publication. It’s not usually quite that swift, but the moment of finishing writing is often immediately followed by the book appearing in print – which makes the whole thing rather dizzying at times. This dizzying quality also comes when Whipple has clearly edited her journals at a later date – though we don’t learn quite the extent this has happened. Here’s an example of all of this…
I posted the book to Cape’s at five o’clock. I hope they will like it. I hardly think they can. What possessed me to write about a girl in a shop? I know nothing about it. But I was fascinated by the life of Miss S., who has done so wonderfully well with and for herself.
I went to the theatre: “Five o’clock Girl”. Hermione Badeley is a genius. I wish I could ask her to tea. I wish one could do that sort of thing. What fun if you could get to know everyone you wanted to!
My book back from Cape. They refuse it. They say it wouldn’t be a commercial success. (This book afterwards sold thousands of copies and is now in its tenth edition. Still selling after thirty years. SO refused authors should take courage and go on notwithstanding. I think it was Nietzsche who said, “Everything worth while is accomplished notwithstanding“.)
I long to do better and am humbled in my own estimation.
But it’s certainly a pleasure to read, structure aside. It was extremely interesting to get an insight into her writing process – and into her thoughts of herself as a writer. She frets that she may be no good; that each new book must be a failure. And yet she is also strongly protective of her characters and her writing, in anguish when her dialogue is badly re-written for a film version, or when publicity material misunderstands the point of They Knew Mr Knight.
Lovers of Whipples novels want to find out all the information they (we) can, and it’s a shame that the entries close before she starts writing my favourite of her books – Someone at a Distance. Quite a lot of the space is occupied with the writing of her autobiography, The Other Day – largely because she doesn’t at all think she can write an autobiography, and ends is some sort of tussle with the publisher, who assures her that she can. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s interesting that (despite all the fiction publishing they’ve done), Persephone haven’t brought her non-fiction into print. It’s much more scarce, so one must assume that they’ve decided it’s not meritworthy enough.
As for Random Commentary – it’s a wonderful resource for the Whipple completist, and brings the novelist as nothing else could. She is frank in these notebooks, and I felt a lot of empathy for her very human feelings about her writing and the publishing process. But it has to be admitted that these notebooks are not great works in and of themselves – they are what they are, which is random jottings of an author trying to encourage herself to write, or distract herself from worrying how a manuscript will be received.
I suppose we’ve been spoiled by Virginia Woolf’s diaries – particularly the edited version A Writer’s Diary – and spoiled by how great an author can be in their diaries. Hers are sublime, a great gift to literature. Whipple’s are not that. They are entertaining, though, and they add a valuable perspective on her much-loved novels. Is this book worth the price you’d have to pay online to get it? Probably not. But keep your eyes peeled when you’re wandering around Falmouth, and you might be in luck.