The Young Menage (1932) by Harold Harvey
This second volume of Whipple short stories (the first was The Closed Door and Other Stories, Persephone Book No. 74) also consists of a novella – Every Good Deed, originally published separately in 1944 – and nine short stories.
Both volumes show Dorothy Whipple at her best. Yet, as we all know, her work, although beloved by Persephone readers, is (still) ignored by the world at large. ‘Country Cousin’, who writes our Forum, pinpointed a reason why this is so: writing about High Wages, she said: ‘There is an intimacy in her writing, so that one feels at times less a reader than a friend with whom she shares amusing details, almost whispering in our ear, confident that we will appreciate them as she does.’ But, Country Cousin adds, ‘the humour is never laboured. Nor does she hector, but leaves us to deduce her message.’
This is the point about reading Dorothy Whipple: there is an intimacy in her writing. But naturally this intimacy does not appeal to everyone. We feel that it appeals to people who like Elizabeth Taylor and yet this is not always the case: we have a friend who adores Elizabeth Taylor but cannot love Dorothy Whipple (yes, there are people).Yet one cannot but suspect that the younger novelist learnt a great deal from Dorothy Whipple. Take the short story in Every Good Deed and Other Stories called ‘Boarding House’ (written in about 1940, just when Elizabeth Taylor was beginning her career as a writer). It is about a rather deplorable woman called Mrs Moore who ruins things for everyone else when she arrives at a small hotel – because she is bored and lonely. ‘“It’s cutlet for cutlet,” she thought bitterly. “I can’t entertain, so no one entertains me now. To think that I should have to come to a place like this. After the life,” she thought, “I’ve lived.”’ The last sentence is pure Elizabeth Taylor. A lesser writer would have put ‘After the life I’ve lived,’ she thought. Why it is funnier and so much more expressive to put ‘she thought’ in the middle of the sentence is a mystery; but it makes all the difference. And why ‘It’s cutlet for cutlet’ is funny is also a mystery, but it certainly is.
The novelist Harriet Evans has written memorably about Dorothy Whipple. She said in her Preface to Because of the Lockwoods (wishing its author was in the pantheon of great twentieth century British novelists) that one reason she isn’t is that although she depicts ‘solid, normal lives’, the ‘cultural tide of opinion is, these days, against her.’ She says that Whipple is an ‘intensely moral writer’ (this also does her a disservice) and that ‘there is something about the clarity of expression and calm curiosity of her prose which is hugely pleasing. She never employs excess to drive her point home but uses each word carefully and simply.’ Finally, there is the ‘readability factor: perhaps that is what mostly damages her reputation, the fact that she is so damned unputdownable. The thinking is the same as it has been for years: shouldn’t real literature be hard to read?’ The world at large may think so; Persephone readers know better.
Taken from a 1950s dress fabric in a private collection