Monday, 5 December 2011

Dorothy Whipple – ‘Greenbanks’

Dorothy Whipple, taken from Persephone's website
If you don’t yet know who Dorothy Whipple is, you’re really missing something special and I suggest you hot click it to the Persephone Books website – as they are steadily republishing this once-forgotten author’s back catalogue.
Greenbanks is the seventh Dorothy Whipple novel to get the Persephone treatment – a process involving the book being bound in the publisher’s recognisable dove grey cover with a carefully considered endpaper, sold with a matching bookmark, topped off with a contemporary foreword, and the novel itself reprinted in a sympathetic font. The whole package is comforting, delightful and such a simple idea that it’s no wonder Persephone books are so popular after 10+ years.
Dorothy Whipple was a favourite writer for many in the 1930s, writing page turning novels about, well, families. But these weren’t forerunners to the so-say Aga sagas – these were timely warnings of morality, or small town thinking, or comments about how hard it is to escape our past.
Like another of Whipple’s novels, The Priory, Greenbanks turns a property into a character, and the Greenbanks of this novel is the site for all of the book’s main twists and developments.
Louisa is a devoted mother and grandmother, who’s stood by and supported her husband and children whether through right or wrong. She shows herself to be a loyal, kind and devoted woman, who repeatedly ends up putting herself out for others, sacrificing her wants, and considering the needs of others. But before you think she’s a nauseating do-gooder, Louisa isn’t at all. Hers is simply a tale of kindness winning out.
With a family tree of philanderers, money grabbers and big heads, Louisa has quietly looked out for the underdog. And we watch as she nurtures former neighbour Kate, who was shunned by the village for having had an illegitimate child as a teenager. And we watch as Louisa provides a home for her free-spirited granddaughter Rachel, one that the girl is denied by her own parents due to her father’s pig-headedness.
These are frequent traits in a Whipple novel – women picking up the pieces after men squander their money, or men bring shame on a family, or find other selfish ways to ruin a good woman. But at the same time, these novels don’t hate men – they are also filled with kind and sensitive men, and there are plenty of loathsome female characters to choose from in a Whipple novel.
Trying to decide just what it is that makes Whipple’s novels so readable, so exciting and so compelling, even 80 years after initial publication, is surprisingly tricky. They clearly bring different things to different people – and different readers find different stories and messages in Whipple’s words. Maybe that’s part of her appeal – that she says so much to so many different people. Whatever it is, her novels are comforting, exhilarating and gripping – I worry Persephone are running out of Whipple’s to republish, and am keeping my fingers crossed that somewhere, someone will discover a chest of her unpublished manuscripts in their loft. And soon.

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