Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
I just finished my second Dorothy Whipple book Greenbanks – the first was Someone in a Distance and, as you may remember, I loved the earlier book. Dorothy Whipple is getting a lot of attention from book bloggers of a certain type – ones who appreciate classics and particularly enjoy novels by women.
A quick google of book blog and Dorothy Whipple turned up my blog first (cool! probably because my review was recent – search engines favor recent stuff over older material) and then MadameJ-Mo‘s review of Greenbanks (not a blog I’ve read, but looks interesting), the Paris Review (last paragraph on the page), Mad Biliophile’s Greenbanks review (another blog new to me), LitBrit’s nice overview of Whipple’s oeuvre, and one of my fave book bloggers Book Snob‘s reviews of many of Whipple’s books. Persephone Press has recently reissued many of her books. No matter where you live, you can order her books directly from this British publisher (and they offer Someone at a Distance as an ebook, as does Amazon). In the US, Amazon also sells the Persephone Whipple books if you don’t want to wait for overseas mail. Or you can do what I did and go to your local library.
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (#150, hard copy, library)
In trying to be disciplined and stay within my 20 book purchases between July 2011 and 2012 pledge, instead of buying this book, I interlibrary loaned it. It happened that our regional library in a fairly nearby city had the original (first edition, I think) edition from 1932 and the librarian who checked it out to me remarked on how old it was:
Isn’t that a lovely cover? Simple, but elegant. It’s a fairly fat little book – about 340 pages, but surprisingly light. I don’t know much about paper, but this seems like very thick, probably high acid paper – it is yellow (a quick google search show’s that the problems with high acid wood pulp paper weren’t recognized until the 30’s after the book was published). Nonetheless, it is in good shape, just weirdly light.
Greenbanks is the story of the Ashtons, a family living in “Elton,” in the Midlands region, not far from Manchester.
British Midlands Region in red (source: British Government via Wikipedia)
The Ashtons are comfortably upper middle class, with several servants, and an income from a timber mill (as a natural resource policy specialist, I’m very interested in how forests and water are creeping into these books – remember that in The Mill on the Floss water right conflicts play a major, actually very pivotal, role in the story). Louisa and Robert are the Ashton parents with progeny Rose, Jim, Thomas, Letty, Laura, and Charles.
Of all the children, Laura is the only still young enough to remain at home because of her youth. Jim and Charles are living at home, but they are older and working at the mill. Another central player is the Ashton’s granddaughter, Rachel, who is very close to her grandmama.
Robert is a serial philanderer and dispatched early in the book. The rest of the story really focuses mostly on the principal women: Louisa, Rachel, Laura, Letty, and Kate Barlow, a former Elton resident who left in disgrace. All of these women struggle to independently define themselves and be happy despite every single one of them experiencing pressure from powerful men in their lives who don’t have their best interests or a full recognition of their personal “agency” at heart.
It is a very modern tale (and notice how often I’m struck by the modern sensibilities of authors! I suppose this is what makes a classic – its issues seem timeless). Should Louisa acquiesce to Jim and Ambrose, both of whom are more concerned about their own well-being (primarily monetary) and public opinion than anything else, or should she make her own decisions, care about the people she loves, and make her own way forward? Should Rachel follow her passions despite public and her father’s opinion? How can Letty find her way toward a space carved out for the people and things she loves? Should Laura fade away in anger and hate with an obtuse, wealthy man or throw it all away for her true love? How will Kate let go of the pain and disgrace of the past and learn to take joy in life today? Many will succeed – building personal power and making the tough, but true, decision. Others won’t. You’ll have to read the book to find out which are which!
I found this book took a little more time than Someone in a Distance to draw me in and compel me to turn page after page in my absorption with trying to see where things were going to go. But a few chapters in, I was there and spellbound, trying to figure out how Whipple does it – how does she write such wonderful characters and great plots? What is it that makes us love these characters so much?
I don’t know, but she does and for that and Persephone’s decision to reissue her books, we are lucky. And once again, we learn a lot about a distant era – the book starts in 1909 and ends around 1922 or 23. Obviously, World War I comes in the middle. There is a lot of discussion about food, the war, clothing, cloth, and housekeeping. I enjoy picking up little tidbits such as Whipple includes.
Nobody is ideal in her books; everyone has faults. Some people are more loveable and sympathetic than others, but I feel like you come to understand even the ones you like less – you know what motivates them and understand how their perspective makes their goals good ones to pursue in their minds. There is definite heartbreak in Greenbanks, but it didn’t take me on the emotional roller coaster of Someone in a Distance where there were many chapters that were physically painful to read as you could see where the story was going, but it took its time going there, and you knew a terrific character was going to get hurt.
But don’t just take my word for it! If you have not yet read Whipple, but she sounds good, join the legions of her new and rapidly growing fan base and pick up one of her books, you won’t be sorry.
Happy Reading, Ruby