I have Jane at Beyond Eden Rock to thank for introducing me to Dorothy Whipple, through her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I’d never heard of Dorothy Whipple before and being a little cautious, I turned to the library for a book to read to mark her birthday – just in case I really couldn’t get on with her. I needn’t have worried. I read Greenbanks, which was Dorothy’s third published novel, and I loved it.
Originally published in 1932 and republished by Persephone in 2011, the title, Greenbanks, refers to the name of the house in which the middle-class Ashton family reside. The book chronicles the lives of the family, principally through Louisa, the loving, anxious and self-deprecatory mother of three adult daughters and three adult sons, and grandmother to several, including Rachel, who is aged 4 when we meet her in 1909 and a university student when the novel ends. Mild-mannered and generally diffident, we see the lives of her sons and daughters mostly through Louisa’s eyes. Louisa loves them all and outwardly supports them all, whilst inwardly despairing of some of their decisions and choices. I found her delightful.
In his afterward, Charles Lock refers to Dorothy Whipple’s writing style as quiet and understated. I agree. He also describes it as ‘flat’, by which he means that the tone and language is not designed to grab the reader’s attention and pull us into the book or onto the next page: the pace is measured and even. This may be the acknowledged style in all Dorothy’s books, but for me, in this book, it reflected Louisa herself. On the surface Louisa was invariably measured and even. Whatever was happening in her heart and mind – and she was an emotional woman with views of her own – outwardly she was rarely disturbed. Her children and her husband lived their lives in full view, with the inevitable turbulence that accompanies shows of public behaviour. Louisa’s role, as nurturer and caregiver, was to soothe, to pour oil on troubled waters; to be the invisible, soft presence; to be a quiet constant in the background. And the writing style of the book upholds this.
I’ve not yet managed to finish it, but as I read Greenbanks, I was consistently reminded of the mother, Mrs Ramsay, from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which had been published five years earlier. Mrs Ramsay and Louisa shared a mother’s concerns over their husbands and families and there are parallels between the exterior and interior lives of the two women. To the Lighthouse recalls childhood emotions and highlights adult relationships, as does Greenbanks. However, To the Lighthouse includes little dialogue and almost no action; most of it is written as thoughts and observations. Greenbanks, with its ‘flat’ understated style, is far more accessible. I found it a testament to Whipple’s abilities – particularly given her style – that her characters consistently fly off the page. Every character is rounded yet sharply delineated; every one of them feels real. Her writing is so elegantly crafted, so effortless to read. It is filled with light and shade, brimming with life and humour and sometimes with grief and pathos.
Greenbanks I read in a delightful rush and found myself sorry to have finished the book so quickly. I am still hankering for more of Louisa and her brood; I could happily turn back to the beginning and start all over again. A contrast to my experience with To the Lighthouse. I have tried several times to finish it – and I will try again. I want to read it and yet somehow, I can’t.
This has been a bit of a tangent: I didn’t set out to make comparisons between Greenbanks and To the Lighthouse, though I do pause to reflect on Woolf’s longevity as a writer and Whipple’s anonymity as the years have passed. And I applaud Persephone’s decision to republish Dorothy Whipple’s work.
Greenbanks – this ‘quiet’ novel – is more than just a pleasing story of middle-class life. Among other things it offers several illustrations of the changing roles of men and women. Louisa had largely made her peace with her place in the family circle – and thus her place in life. She kept much of her life hidden behind her meek and pleasing demeanour and took outward pleasure from her family’s achievements and from small everyday things such as her garden and her knitting. Louisa is the archetypal maternal lynchpin: a nurturing-figure, overshadowed by her husband, beset by demands from her children, yet making peace with her situation and by and large, contented.
Her daughters take a different stance. Letty began adult life with similar expectations to her mother and looked for security and stability in her choice of husband, which she got in spades. But she became increasingly disillusioned, frustrated, stifled and resentful of the restrictions that marriage and motherhood placed on her. Like her mother, Letty kept her feelings to herself but unlike Louisa, she could not find a point of equilibrium within her lot and plodded through her married life inwardly seething. Letty took no action for herself until circumstances provided her with the means to exert her independence, and even then, she sought to do so respectably. Her sister, Laura, on the other hand, had no such concerns about appearances and respectability. A marriage on the rebound quickly unravelled and when the chance arose to find happiness elsewhere, Laura grabbed it – leaving Louisa and her siblings to deal with the fallout.
The men in the novel are generally presented in a poor light. Louisa’s husband, Robert, is a minor character and dies early in the book under rather unsavoury circumstances. Her son Jim, is an unlikeable, grasping and ambitious man. It is Louisa’s pompous, overblown son-in-law, Ambrose who gets the lion’s share of the spotlight among the men and I found him a wonderful character. He steps in to run Louisa’s life for her, believing it to be his duty to fill the breach left by the death of his father-in-law. Very much of the old school, a seemingly-benevolent Victorian dictator, he sees women as decorative enhancements in the lives of their husbands and as devoted mothers and homemakers. He finds it impossible to concede that a woman may have a mind of her own or a degree of intellect, and certainly she shouldn’t be expected to make her own decisions. Ambrose believes he is being kindly when he does the thinking for his wife, Letty, and then his mother-in-law, Louisa. He ought to be thoroughly repugnant and in many ways, he is. But Dorothy Whipple shows his ridiculousness with humour and with sympathy. I found myself feeling quite sorry for him when he finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of Letty and his now grown-up daughter, Rachel.
And talking of Rachel, it is in her generation where change happens. Whipple paints a charming portrait of Rachel, Louisa’s granddaughter, as a young girl. Secure in the love of her grandmother, despite her dominating father, her three boisterous older brothers and her detached mother, Rachel’s childhood is stable and happy. She grows into an intelligent young woman with a thirst for learning, with a spirit and an independence beyond the dreams of her mother and grandmother. But her dreams too, are initially thwarted. Rachel is devastated when her father refuses to allow her to take up the prestigious university scholarship she wins. A compromise is eventually reached, and she is allowed to travel to Liverpool to study part-time. It is here that she finds a love of her own and her strength grows further. Despite his best, blustering efforts, Ambrose, her father, can do no more than delay Rachel’s paths in life.
Greenbanks, and Dorothy Whipple’s abilities, were described by two of the most popular male novelists writing alongside her. J B Priestley described Dorothy Whipple as “the Jane Austen of the 20th century”. And when Greenbanks was chosen in 1933 as the ‘Choice of the Book Society’, Hugh Walpole wrote: “To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”
There so much more that I could say about this ‘quiet’ book. Louisa’s relationship with her favourite son, Charles is heartrendingly tender and poignant. And I’ve made no mention of the story of Kate, whom Louisa brings to live at Greenbanks as her companion.
In its review of Greenbanks, The Spectator said: “Greenbanks is a pleasant, quiet, delightful domestic book, lifted head and shoulders above the ranks of pleasant, quiet, delightful domestic books by the uncanny accuracy of the portraiture and the lightness and delicacy of its touch.” And I heartily agree.
“Hush, love,” said Louisa. “I don’t feel he’s dead. I feel he has come very near. Never to leave me anymore. I’ve seen him go away so often, but I shan’t again. He’ll stay with me now, until I go to him. Don’t cry, love. Dry your eyes. Don’t disturb him by crying. Let’s sit here quietly with him.”
Gradually, Rachel made herself quiet; she leaned against her grandmother, her hand in hers. A strange peace filled the room. The dusk deepened. Rachel, worn out after her tears, had fallen asleep, but Louisa kept communion with her son.
“She’s taken it very well,” said some with relief.
“Does she feel it, do you think?” asked others.
“How wonderful she is…”
They passed their opinions on Louisa. She did not know what they said and would not have heeded if she had. The first exaltation did not last, but it returned. When Charles’ things came home, Louisa broke down. She locked herself away with his clothes, creased by his living body, his bed, his pocket-book with an unfinished letter to her. No one knew what she suffered in Charles’ room, but when she came out of it, there was a radiance in her face that silenced well-meant condolences.
Through Charles, living, Louisa had known her greatest happiness. Through Charles, dead, she began to know some ineffable life of the spirit. Love and sorrow took the scales from her eyes; she experienced something she could not express, she felt something she could not understand.
Do consider Jane’s charming review of Greenbanks, written on her earlier blog.