There is something bittersweet about reading Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple (one of the recent reissues by Persephone Books). On one hand, it’s a Dorothy Whipple so you know you’re in for a treat. But on the other hand, it’s the final Dorothy Whipple left for Persephone to republish so now the final page has been turned and… no more new Whipples. I am bereft!
For their final Whipple, Persephone have gone back to the beginning with Dorothy’s first ever book. Originally published in 1927, Young Anne is a clearly autobiographical book about Dorothy’s own formative relationship with the real-life George Owen who was killed in World War One. And as a tribute, the man who has stolen Anne’s heart is also called George. Which is a name the character dreams about calling her son, should she ever have one.
Young Anne follows the first 20 years or so of Anne Pritchard’s life, from girlhood to marriage. The only daughter in an Edwardian family that favours sons and practices Victorian values of showing the children no affection whatsoever, headstrong Anne is packed off to a convent in the hope it will quieten her down. Instead she becomes infatuated by the romanticism of Catholicism and the subject of young girls’ crushes. When her emotionally detached father dies and leaves Anne and her mother destitute, Anne is taken in by her witch of an aunt while her mother moves on rotation from one relative’s spare room to another, dependent on the kindness of others. The only constant and comfort in Anne’s life is the family’s maid Emily, who has known her since she was a baby.
Seeking financial independence, Emily defies her austere aunt and enrols on a secretarial course before taking an office job where she finds her husband. But all of this happens around the real heart of the story, and that is Anne’s love with her friend’s cousin George Yates. George is a bright, kind and sparky young man from a poor family, and he has a huge chip on his shoulder about his lack of wealth and his lower status than Anne’s. But Dorothy’s descriptions of the building love and passion between the two is convincing and when Anne suddenly breaks it off with George, the reader is left as confused as he is.
But being Dorothy Whipple, nothing is straightforward and love cannot run smoothly. While Young Anne has all the hallmarks of a fledgling novelist finding her voice, the distinctive sound of Dorothy Whipple can easily be heard in this compelling novel. While a Whipple can never be called a challenging read, they are always compulsive and I enjoyably sped through Young Anne in one weekend.
There’s a lot going on in Young Anne. While ostensibly a novel about young love and the influence it can have on the rest of your life, this is also a novel with sparks of feminism (Anne can’t understand why she must fold sheets while her brothers need not; she is frustrated at how hard it is for young women to be trained for employment; her mother becomes a burden to others when she is left widowed and homeless). But more than anything, this is evidently a story about Dorothy Whipple’s own love for George Owen.