I finished Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple earlier this week and realised that, though this is the fourth book I have read by Whipple, I’ve yet to review any of her works on this blog. Now, part of this is explained by my relative indifference towards her writing – why spend time discussing an author whose works I find inoffensive but generally unremarkable and unmemorable? – but the main reason has been to avoid outing myself, as I have just done in the first half of this sentence, as a Persephone lover who does not love Dorothy Whipple.
There are things I like about Whipple; chiefly, her books’ ability to sell well for Persephone Books. She is still, last I read, their top-selling author and as I have great respect for Persephone and wish them well in all things, I am delighted when they find a consistent revenue stream. They are publishing their eight Whipple title later this year (Because of the Lockwoods) and I hope it sells as well for them as the rest have.
That said, I also completely understand the “Whipple line”, a concept used by Virago in their selection process to weed out sub-par writing. As someone who for years had philosophical issues with Virago, this was actually the olive branch that made me begin to warm to them (I have thawed absolutely since they began reprinting Angela Thirkell’s novels). Whipple can spin plots that are absorbing enough to while away a few desultory hours but her melodramas offer nothing challenging or even particularly satisfying. They may begin enjoyably – I was having great fun when I started Someone at a Distance and even mid-way through it – but I always end them feel like Whipple has disappointed me. This was especially true of Someone at a Distance, which turned so absurd and artificial that I was livid with Whipple by the end. She chooses histrionics every time. While some readers obviously respond to that level of drama, I find myself sighing with disappointment and now resignation. I’ve learned to enjoy her novels as light, flimsy soap operas (The Priory was particularly good this way) but I want well-rounded characters and more complexity – particularly from her universally-flat male characters – than she is capable of offering.
All that said, her books aren’t awful (what a resounding endorsement). They have their place in my reading diet and for this week, suffering from jet lag and adjusting to my work schedule after two weeks of blissful holidays, she was just the thing.
Greenbanks is the home of the Ashton family. In 1909, when the novel begins, Louisa Ashton is a matriarch in her late fifties, with a philandering husband, three adult children living at home, and another three children married and off with families of their own. She is also a dotting grandmother to Rachel, then just four. There are other grandchildren but they are insignificant, both to the story and Lousia, frankly. Rachel’s mother, Letty, is the only one of Louisa’s married children who lives near Greenbanks and so the two households meet often, especially with Rachel treating Greenbanks as a second home as the years go on. Greenbanks, after all, with her doting grandmother and the allure of complete freedom, is far more attractive than her own home, with her timid mother and small-minded, petty father.
The book follows the Ashtons from 1909 to the mid-twenties. Maybe. There is a jarring miscalculation or typo when the book leaps forward in time: “It was six years since the war had ended and Rachel was now seventeen a half.” This is an impressive ability indeed to halt the aging process, since Rachel was four in 1909. Regardless, it takes us to some post-war period. The Ashton family is intact though reduced in numbers from their pre-war strength. More change is afoot, though: Louisa’s youngest daughter is trying to obtain a divorce from her husband after running away with another man; Rachel, grown into a clever and determined young woman, is eager to study at a university, despite her father’s disapproval; and Letty, Rachel’s mother, is coming close to reaching a breaking point after twenty-odd years of marriage to the rigid, unimaginative Ambrose. Louisa, now a widow, has also brought a companion to live with her at Greenbanks: Kate Barlow, who, more than twenty years before, had an affair with a married local man, bore his child, and then disappeared in disgrace.
Whipple uses the novel to chronicle the social changes in England over this period, particularly in the lives of women. I didn’t find her approach particularly compelling but, nonetheless, there is food for thought here. Letty’s dissatisfaction with her husband and longing for adventure cannot help but bring to mind Lotty Wilkins from The Enchanted April (and remind this reader at least how much more skilled von Arnim was than Whipple at writing about women’s internal struggles). Rachel’s plight, if it can be called anything so dramatic, is a quest for independence through education. When she wins that (with relative ease), she finds herself in more conventional conflict with her parents – at least her father – over her choice of future husband. I have to admit, I was a little in sympathy with her generally unsympathetic father here, though our reasons were very different. Kate Barlow has probably the most interesting situation, though I think Whipple is clumsily heavy-handed in her writing here. Kate is determined to punish herself for her ‘sin’, despite the welcome extended to her by everyone at Greenbanks and in the village. She clings to her outsider status, happy to be a martyr and to reject the friendly overtures made to her.
Louisa, placid and pleasant, is the most frustrating aspect of this book, though others don’t agree. Rachel of Book Snob, one of Whipple’s most articulate and devoted proponents, calls Greenbanks her favourite Whipple novel and sees Louisa “a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion”. Well, she does radiate love and devotion, but what good does that do? Louisa is a born homemaker, delighted with domestic comforts and happiest when she is at Greenbanks with her family. But an ability to create a pretty home and preserve jam does not necessarily make you a good parent. Just as Louisa was content to ignore her husband’s infidelities, never mentioning them though she was aware of them from the earliest days of her marriage, she keeps her own council about her children’s choices, never thinking to discuss their lives with them, even when some counselling from a loving mother might have helped prevent years of heartache. Two of her daughters make unhappy marriages and one son becomes more hard-hearted with each passing year, while another, her over-indulged favourite, floats aimlessly through life. Louisa loves and worries about them all but she also leaves them all, at times disastrously, to their own devices. There is much unhappiness among the children of Greenbanks and some of that must be laid at Louisa’s door. Love and kindness is only part of parenting – Louisa seems to avoid all of the difficult and unpleasant but nonetheless necessary bits.
Obviously, this was not the book to turn me into an adoring Whipple fan. That said, it had its moments, just as Whipple has her place on my bookshelf.