Greenbanks was one of two books I was given by Santa for Christmas. My Santa very thoughtfully made his way into Persephone books for the first time and picked the exact book I would have chosen myself as well as No Surrender by Constance Maud. Great choices – so I feel very lucky.
Reading Dorothy Whipple is like revisiting a comfortable and cherished friend. The ordinariness of her characters and their lives makes it so easy to relate to and to step into their shoes. You wouldn’t expect it to be escapist reading but in a way it is – somehow she manages to include her reader in the story, it’s like being in the same room as the action is taking place. Whipple’s insight into human emotions and family dynamics is spot on, I haven’t yet read a book of hers and not felt accutely what at least one of her characters was feeling.
Greenbanks is the name of a house or more accurately a home in . Three generations live or have lived there – Louisa, her brood of children and their children – in particular Rachel, a 6 year old when the story begins in the years approaching the First World War – nearly coming of age as it finishes. Rachel is Louisa’s favourite grandchild and these two are the heart of the story. Their goodness balances out the weaknesses in the other characters. The story is about the people who inhabit the house – Greenbanks being the hub where at one time or another, everyone returns to.
Each of Whipple’s stories seems to have a man who is a villian of sorts, not so much in the criminal way but in the way he treats people, especially women. In Greenbanks this task is enthusiastically tackled by Ambrose, husband to Louisa’s daughter Letty and father of Rachel. Ambrose is a fantastic character, so infuriating – controlling and thoughtless, yet vulnerable too.
Through her male characters and sometimes through less than wonderful female characters, Dorothy Whipple highlights the plight of women in a subtle way but one which leaves no doubt as to how difficult it could be in the first decades of the 20th century to be a woman. There is a scene in Greenbanks where Ambrose tries to interfere with his daughter going to universtiy – I was outraged and that was just reading about it – imagine actually living it!
But – and this is one of the loveliest things about Whipple’s characters, she doesn’t judge and no matter how difficult, there will always be people in her stories who shine, who find a way to flourish regardless – that’s what makes her reads so satisfying I think and also important. They are more than just a pleasant read about domestic life. They also reflect the constant changes and progression of their times. Life is not the same before and after the war.
Greenbanks is a slow burner – I wondered early on if this was going to be the first Dorothy Whipple that I didn’t love. I should have had more faith, she hasn’t let me down yet. The story gathers momentum and gets better by the page towards the end.
392 pages, 1932 (republished 2011)