Sunday, April 12, 2015

DOROTHY WHIPPLE, Random Commentary (1966)

From a blogger's perspective, memoirs and diaries are usually the easiest of books to write about. A quick summary of the situation and time period, with perhaps a bit of attention paid to summarizing the author's particular strengths, are really all that's required. Once that's accomplished, you can gleefully abandon yourself to self-indulgent sharing of a few of your favorite passages. Piece of cake.

But Dorothy Whipple's Random Commentary is a little bit of an exception.

I'm surprised that so little attention has been paid to this wonderful little book, which was—according to its subtitle—"Compiled from note-books and journals kept from 1925 onwards." Whipple is one of my favorite authors and one of Persephone's greatest literary reclamations (in my humble opinion, of course), and she's also a favorite of many other bloggers. But not very many bloggers seem to have discussed this book, which is the closest thing we have to a full-fledged memoir of Whipple's adult life (her The Other Day deals only with her childhood). It's also unclear whether Persephone, who are just about finished reprinting Whipple's fiction (only her debut, Young Anne, and a second story collection, including her novella Every Good Deed, left for them to release), will move on to this book and The Other Day, though I very, very much hope that they will.

It's an odd little book. Whipple apparently began keeping a sporadic diary in 1925, but she never bothered with dates, or even subdivisions between entries, so that 20 years or so of her life runs together in a sort of autobiographical stream-of-consciousness. Some readers might find this a bit irritating (not to mention confusing), but if you can get into the flow it's actually quite entertaining and addictive.

Somehow, for me, the book also seemed more personal for its idiosyncrasies—as if Whipple were just making periodic small talk with me, sharing the bits and pieces of her life, without either of us ever feeling the need to nail down exactly what happened when and instead just enjoying the friendly flow of conversation. As such, I found the book to be a wonderful evocation of Whipple's personality, and it only made me wish—as I have every time I've read one of her novels—that I could have her as my next-door neighbor. (I've mentioned this fantasy before, and I think Rumer Godden would have to live on the opposite side, though I'd certainly like D. E. Stevenson and Agatha Christie to live on the same block as well. Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton-Burnett could live a bit further away, convenient for more formal visits but not close enough to just happen in when I'm not at my best...)

Add to this that, since the diary begins in 1925, a couple of years before her first novel appeared, Random Commentary allows us to trace Whipple's charming reactions to her growing success as an author, on through the usual difficulties of being a middle-class woman trying to find time (and inspiration) to write, until, by the end of the diary, she is more or less an old hand, working with two different movie studios at once, each adapting one of her novels for the screen. Factoring that in, you can perhaps see why this is a more difficult book to write about than most diaries or memoirs: There are so many passages I marked and would love to share with you that I am quite overwhelmed and practically paralyzed by the thought of selecting just a handful.

It's wonderful reading about Whipple's literary triumphs, especially when they are just beginning, first with an initial disappointment and a self-critique that we soon learn to expect from Whipple:

My book has come back from Heinemann. I feel chastened and emptied of dreams and prospects. Only last night I felt bouncingly hopeful, and all the time it was lying in the post, coming back. Now that I read the book again, it reads poorly. I wonder if I am any good at all? One thing I know, and that is, I don't work hard enough. I don't dig deep enough.

And then, on the very next page of the diary, things turn around:

This is the proudest day of my life! My first book is accepted by Jonathan Cape. When, staying with Mother in London, I got the wire from Henry saying that Cape wanted to see me, my knees gave under me. I felt sick with excitement.

The insecurity into which Whipple fell with the completion of each novel is irresistible (though it must have been gruelling to go through), and is somewhat reminiscent of, though thankfully less extreme than, that suffered by Woolf:

Today I finished my second novel, called at present High Wages. What a relief to be done with it! I don't think much of it—diffuse, no unity, too light-weight altogether.

I cannot get on with Greenbanks. Shall I ever have done with it? It is about nothing—stale, flat—a hopeless failure, I feel. This book has not been properly thought out. Never begin another time without thinking the thing out. When will I learn?

I begin the second draft of my book [They Knew Mr. Knight]. The first is very scrappy. I don't see my way with the book yet. I thought I had a good plot, but when it is done out, it looks thin. I don't like having to concoct plots, I like doing people.

I am very unproductive at present. I suppose Newstead is too deeply interesting for me to occupy myself with anything else. Anyway, I hate my autobiography. How can I drivel on like this for 80,000 words?

In each case, it's nice to read, a few pages later, about her change of heart as each of the books is embraced by critics, book clubs, bestseller lists, and/or movie studios.

It was astonishing to me to learn that two of my favorite Whipples, High Wages and The Priory, each caused one of her current publishers to drop her—her British publisher in the first instance, her American publisher in the latter—though both surely regretted their decisions when the books went on to much success.

I also fell a little more deeply in love with Whipple every time she bemoaned the witlessness of people who stole her time away from writing:

A neighbour came and interrupted me all morning, by mending the wireless set. We didn't ask him to. I stood by in feminine politeness, but fuming. Women are too polite to men. They (including, alas! me) will put up with anything from them—endless supposedly funny stories, dull speeches, etc.

It's about halfway through the diary when World War II begins. Although Whipple mentions major events and the overall tone of the war at various periods, and although it's certainly a contributing factor to the fact that her wartime novel They Were Sisters seems to have the most difficult development of all her works, for the most part the war stays in the background. Work and people are always at the forefront of Whipple's life. At any rate, she seems to take air raids in her stride:

In the middle of this night, the air-raid siren went for the first time ever. A loud warbling screech. I heard it first, and woke Henry and Nelly. We scrambled into clothes, snatched Roddy, and went down into the dank, dark air-raid shelter. We were not in the least perturbed. The night was clear and still, with a glorious moon. We soon got tired of sitting in the shelter and went back to bed. About half an hour afterwards the All-Clear went. But about half-an-hour after that, the air-raid siren went again. We went back to the shelter, but soon re-emerged.

But it's really the touches of everyday life and of Whipple's sensitivity and observation that made the book so delightful for me, such as this observation on her marriage:

Marriage is funny. We sometimes part in the mornings, furious with each other. I quite hate Henry and he probably hates me with the same intensity. But if I go into town and see him in the street, I rush to him with the greatest joy, as if I hadn't seen him for weeks, and he beams at me as if no greater blessing could meet his eyes. I should think this is true for other married people everywhere, yet at every quarrel, one thinks it is the end and that no one else could possibly be so miserable, so unfortunate in one's partner.

And there is this echo of Woolf's endless troubles with servants, in which I found Whipple's decisiveness a nice tonic after Woolf's cowering terror:

Miss w. departs in an odour of sanctity and camphor balls. An embarrassing conversation at the end. "May I ask why I am leaving?" she said. I daren't say, "because I don't like you", so I reminded her she has said the work was killing her and that she didn't like the three steps down into the kitchen at the Nottingham house. She looked bitterly aggrieved.

You must see by now the difficulty of whittling down so many quotable moments to one blog post, but I will exercise some self control (a rare enough event for me!) and leave some of those moments for you to discover yourself, if it does become possible for you to read this lovely little book. And if it does, seize the day!

1 comment:

  1. I have a copy and I return to it time and time again. I find it fascinating like dipping into another time, but one I recognise. I used to think I was her only fan until I discovered Persephone Books


NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!