The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

It’s turning out to be all Whipple all the time on Stuck in a Book right now. Well, long before I started Random Commentary, I was already reading the monster that is The Priory (1939). It’s enormous. My copy is 528 pages – I basically never read books that are over 500 pages, and that’s why I’ve had my copy for nearly 14 years (gasp, how did time pass that quickly?)

I bought it just before I started university, while on a trip to the Bookbarn to buy books for my course. This was, ahem, not for my course – but I couldn’t resist. And it was only when I got home that I discovered that my copy was… signed by Dorothy Whipple!

Obviously my copy is much older than the Persephone edition – which I do also have, as I can’t bring myself to get rid of either copy. And it starts like this…

It was almost dark. Cars, weaving like shuttles on the high road between two towns fifteen miles apart, had their lights on. Every few moments, the gates of Saunby Priory were illuminated. Every few moments, to left or to right, the winter dusk was pierced by needle points of light which, rushing swiftly into brilliance, summoned the old gateway like an apparition from the night and, passing, dispelled it.

The gates were from time to time illuminated, but the Priory, set more than a mile behind them, was still dark. To the stranger it would have appeared deserted. It stood in dark bulk, with a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky. The West Front of the Priory, built in the thirteenth century for the service of God and the poor, towered above the house that had been raised alongside from its ruins, from its very stones. And because no light showed from any window here, the stranger, visiting Saunby at this hour, would have concluded that the house was empty.

But he would have been wrong. There were many people within.

So – what’s The Priory about? The house in question is called Saunby Priory, and is the vast home belonging to the Marwood family. There is grumpy widower Major Marwood, who lives only for the cricket season – which he throws large sums of money at, while the rest of the year he is a fierce penny pincher. There are his daughters Christine and Penelope, still in the nursery though now newly grown up. And there is a handful of servants who occasionally war with each other and occasionally sleep with each other (in a tactful 1930s way, of course).

Curiously, the Priory never felt very big to me. After that introduction, the scenes inside the house are rather claustrophobic – people worrying about space, getting in each other’s way, or being moved to make room for others. I wonder how deliberate that was.

There are a series of stages, where the entrance of a new character into the scene changes things – the first being the shy, anxious woman who will become Major Marwood’s new wife: Anthea. She is old enough that she believed she would always be a spinster, and is keen to accept his fairly ungracious proposal – which he makes by phone, because he doesn’t want the bother of going around to her in case she says no. There are also men who enter stage left to woo the girls; there is a passage of time in London. It is all very involved, and spaced evenly throughout the hundreds of pages – like an ongoing soap opera of events, neatly paced and always meeting the anticipated dose of emotion. There is also humour, particularly at the beginning, though the tone of the novel grows a little more melodramatic as the pages go by.

The Priory doesn’t have the psychological nuance of some of Whipple’s other novels. (That’s my view anyway – see review links at the bottom for different opinions!) Because her tapestry of events is so protracted, and must be filled, each one gets its moments of alarm and pathos, and everybody reacts in heightened dialogue before neatly moving onto the next moment. For instance, Anthea moves from being a timid new bride to ruthlessly running the household for the protection of her new babies, but settles into the new role so comfortably that it doesn’t feel as though a psychological shift has taken place so much as a new set of characteristics has been introduced. The same is true for the daughters as they experience marriage, parenthood, and adult woes.

Which is not to say that what is here isn’t a joy to read. It is – I moved through the novel very happily, enjoying every page for the entertaining soap opera that it was. I suppose my only point is that Whipple can do better, in terms of insight and depth – but not every novel needs to be insightful and deep. Some can just be engagingly written and immersively enjoyable – indeed, that is no mean feat. Yes, it could have been 200pp shorter without losing very much – I’d have advised staying in the Priory and not wandering off around the country – but I can’t disagree with the tribute that E.M. Delafield gave the novel in The Provincial Lady in Wartime:

What, I enquire in order to gain time, does Mrs. Peacock like in the way of books?

In times such as these, she replies very apologetically indeed, she thinks a novel is practically the only thing. Not a detective novel, not a novel about politics, nor about the unemployed, nothing to do with sex, and above all not a novel about life under Nazi régime in Germany.

Inspiration immediately descends upon me and I tell her without hesitation to read a delightful novel called The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, which answers all requirements, and has a happy ending into the bargain.

Mrs. Peacock says it seems too good to be true, and she can hardly believe that any modern novel is as nice as all that, but I assure her that it is and that it is many years since I have enjoyed anything so much.


Others who got Stuck into it:

“The best thing about this book is the characters. Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.” – Books and Chocolate

“It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.” – Bag Full of Books

“Not a lot “happens” in this novel; most of the action centers around emotion. It’s all about subtlety here.” – A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

There is also an enjoyable write-up in the Persephone Forum.


Random Commentary by Dorothy Whipple

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.

Every Good Deed – Dorothy Whipple

It wasn’t until I listed Every Good Deed among my purchases at the Bookbarn that I realised how scarce it was – as a couple of commenters pointed out.  That made me feel duty-bound to read it asap, despite having only read some of the Persephone Whipples available (Someone at a Distance, They Knew Mr Knight, Greenbanks, High Wages, and The Closed Door – more than I’d thought, now I come to list them).  Well, judging by Persephone’s love for Dorothy Whipple, I predict that Every Good Deed (1946) will one day join that number – but perhaps they needn’t rush.  It was enjoyable and interesting, but it wasn’t Whipple on top form…

They general idea is that a couple of oldish spinster sisters adopt a child from a local sort of orphanage, and all does not go well.  Susan and Emily Topham are shy, caring, worried about what society thinks of them, and above all not ready for a trickster.  Their cook (Cook, if you will) is a little more worldly-wise, but just barely.  Enter Gwen.

She steals, she talks back, she lies, she is (when a little older) no better than she ought to be.  She abuses their care and runs amok – and runs away.  She’s not even an orphan; her wily mother uses the situation to exact cash from the Topham sisters.

There were hundreds of children who, in the same circumstances, would have responded to their care, would have loved them and been grateful; but by mischance they had hit upon Gwen.
That’s Whipple’s slightly half-hearted attempt to make sure we know Every Good Deed isn’t supposed to be a universal cautionary tale.  The classism of the book did make me a little uneasy, and I’m not sure that sentence saved things…

There are a few more ins and outs in the narrative than this, but not many.  Although I enjoyed reading it, and Whipple is an expert at writing a very readable book, it did feel a lot like a short story which had got a bit long.  There is only one arc of the narrative – subplots not welcome – and the moments of crisis feel like the climaxes of a short story, not multifaceted moments in a novella.  Every Good Deed is only just over a hundred pages long, but I reckon it would have made more sense at, say, forty pages, in one of Whipple’s short story collections.  An enjoyable enough read, but if you’re struggling to find a copy anywhere… well, don’t feel too distraught about it.

“Experience doth take dreadfully high wages…”

On the off chance that you’ll have me back, after Mel and Dark Puss have proved me completely dispensable over the past month, I’m going to turn my hand to another book review! And this time it’s a Persephone book, which always curries favour. I am getting a little ahead of myself, what with Persephone Reading Week coming up around the corner, but I thought it would cheating to review this then, since I actually finished it in the middle of March.

Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages (1930) is the latest Whipple novel to be published by Persephone and the third that I’ve read – the other two being the very wonderful Someone at a Distance and the pretty wonderful They Knew Mr. Knight. [edit: I forgot that I’ve also read Greenbanks, but don’t remember much about it…] High Wages focuses on Jane Carter, who takes a job working for Mr. Chadwick who runs a draper’s shop in Tidsley. She’s doing it on account of a stepmother, but we don’t think about her much after the first chapter, and she only really acts as a catalyst for what follows. Jane enters the politics of a small town and a small shop, dealing with the meanness of her employers, the lovesickness of her colleague Maggie, and the quiet friendship of poor-wife-made-good Mrs. Briggs.
Persephone’s write-up of the novel is very interesting, far more than just description of the book, and I recommend you give it a read by clicking here. They include this thought:She is not, of course, a ‘great’ writer. You could not take one of her sentences, as you can with, say, Mollie Panter-Downes, and hold it up to the light. But she is serviceable, perceptive and humane.I agree on all counts – while Whipple’s prose is a cut above a lot of her contemporaries (and almost everything I flick through in the bookshop now) she isn’t a notable stylist. She even veers towards the saccharine or predictable on occasion in this novel (though not in the other two I’ve read) – I definitely blame the romance plot, which High Wages could have done without, and would have been a better novel for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Whipple’s publisher leant on her to include it… but it just got a little silly towards the end. (Query: is it possible to write the dialogue of people desperately and recklessly in love without sounding like a mediocre soap opera? Then again, I’m quite fond of mediocre soap operas…)

That aside, there is plenty to love. How could you not like a book with the following sentiment? :Oh, the comfort of that first cup of tea! The warmth and life it put into you! They held their hands round the cups to warm them and their eyes looked less heavily on the bleak kitchen.

‘What do we do now?’ asked Jane.

‘We have another cup of tea, said Maggie’The day-to-day runnings of the shop make excellent material for a novel, and that’s what I enjoyed most in High Wages – the hierarchies in the shop and those of the customers, and how Jane negotiates them. Such is the minutiae that Whipple does so well, and so perceptively.

An interesting sideplot is the maid Lily and her abusive husband. That sounds very gritty, but Whipple has a way of taking gritty plots and making them pretty cosy… And I do have a weakness for dialect-driven, unselfconscious servants in interwar novels – the best being Nellie in another Persephone, Cheerful Weather For The Wedding. For a taste of Nellie, click here – otherwise, back to Lily:

Lily arrived. She whimpered as she lit the fire, and as Jane reappeared at intervals in the kitchen, she told her Bob wasn’t like a husband at all.

‘Aren’t you going to love me a bit I says to ‘im this morning, and ‘e says with such a nasty look, “To ‘ell with you and your love.” Just like that.’

And when she tried to kiss him good-bye, he’d thrown a plate at her.

‘Whatever do you want to kiss him for?’ asked Jane, squeezing out the wash-leather for the shop-door glass. ‘Throw a plate back at him, my goodness.’

She thought she herself would make short work of such a husband.

‘No…’ Lily shook her head as she dipped the bald brush into the blacklead. ‘I couldn’t do that. Bad as ‘e is, I love ‘im. Besides, it’s me as ‘as to pay for the plate.’
Well, quite.

Throughout High Wages there is fairly strong divide between rich-bad-people and the ‘onest-‘umble-poor. Mrs. Briggs bridges the divide – in that she’s rich, but always harks back to the simpler times before her husband (whose name I forgot, but which I presume is Alfred or Albert; this sort of man is always called one of the two) got rich. I did find that all a little tedious… but that’s a small quibble. And is really mentioned as way of bringing up rich-bad-Sylvia, and this amusing description of her:
Sylvia, poor child, hadn’t a grain of humour in her composition. Not what he called humour. She didn’t like Punch. That was his test. She laughed at hats sometimes, but he couldn’t remember that she ever laughed at anything else.
All in all, High Wages is an enjoyable novel, though not one I think Persephone would have reprinted had it been Whipple’s only novel. I recommend you start with Someone at a Distance, if you’ve never read a Whipple novel before – but High Wages doesn’t do any damage to the credentials of Persephone’s most popular discovery.

Someone at a Distance

Continuing the week of Persephone Birthday celebrations here at S-i-a-B (and do keep telling us in the previous post about your favourite Persephones and how you found out about them, and put your request in for a chance to win a Persephone book of your choice) – I don’t think I’ve ever talked about one of my favourite Persephone books. Appropriately enough it was one of the first three to be published, so it’s now ten years since it came back into print.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was Whipple’s last novel, published in 1953 and received no reviews at all. For a once bestselling novelist, this was quite a blow – and, what’s worse, it was a wholly undeserved silence. I’ve only read four of Whipple’s books – SaaD, They Knew Mr. Knight, Greenbanks, The Closed Door and other stories, all except Greenbanks published by Persephone – but Someone at a Distance is the best of those. A lot of people agree that it’s her best novel, and it should have been treated with fanfares and red carpets.

The plot appears, on the surface, to be conventional. A contentedly married couple, Ellen and Avery, are disrupted when a French companion arrives and runs off with Avery. The narrative moves back and forth across the channel, looking at the dignified devestation of Ellen and the homeland and family of Louise, the French interloper. What starts as a not unusual trio is given enormous depth and believable emotion when we investigate why Louise acts as she does; witness Avery’s confusion and attempts to organise his life and mistakes; Ellen’s need to look after her two children as well as retain her dignity and integrity. And all the time the reader is asking him/herself – who is the ‘someone at a distance’? Whipple sometimes creates some great titles that make you think all the way through the novel, and while I have set views on which character the ‘someone’ is, others disagree.

I’m a big believer in judging books on their writing, rather than plot – and Whipple is a prose writer par excellence. Not showy or grandiose, but both moving and compulsive – Someone at a Distance is a fairly long book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you read it in one or two sittings. Dorothy Whipple may well be the great undiscovered English novelist – certainly Someone at a Distance is an excellently constructed, sophisticated and emotionally taut novel which should never have been allowed to go out of print.

As well as being one of the first three Persephone Books titles published, Someone at a Distance was one of the first Persephone Classics, and treated to a wider publication and beautiful cover. I love the uniformity of ther Persephone library, but I also think this Persephone Classics cover is the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen. And so I had to own both…

I’m sure lots of people here have read Someone at a Distance – thoughts? Who do you think the ‘someone’ is? If you’ve not read it, I really encourage you to give Dorothy Whipple a try.

Dorothy Whipple, how I do love thee

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.