Forgotten authors No 31: Dorothy Whipple

Christopher Fowler
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:56

JB Priestley once described her as "the Jane Austen of the 20th century". Dorothy Whipple (née Stirrup) was massively successful in her day, joining the ranks of Waugh and Greene with her second novel, Greenbanks. Her popularity was no doubt helped by the grace and unostentatious simplicity of her prose, but – it's becoming a litany in this column – she fell out of style after the war.

One of eight siblings, Whipple was born in 1893, just off the Edgware Road, to a respectable family of manufacturers. She married a director of education 24 years her senior (a fact that wormed its way into her writing), and wrote Young Anne, the first of nine increasingly successful volumes. Her novels are nuanced tales in which families face social readjustment after becoming "victims of the turbulence of the outside world". Her characters discover that the tenacity of the spirit and the innate goodness of ordinary people help them to face life's shortcomings.

Two of her novels were made into British films: a family climbs the social ladder then faces disgrace in the noir-ish They Knew Mr Knight, while James Mason starred in They Were Sisters. The latter is a rather menacing tale of three siblings, their choices and the various levels of domestic abuse they suffer. Whipple's final novel, Someone at a Distance, concerns midlife crisis and infidelity, and is considered by many to be her best. Whipple described it as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage". If you want to see her style encapsulated, read its opening line.

Once again, Persephone Books has done an excellent job of rescuing these lost books, which have committed no greater sin than being unsensationally written and beautifully constructed. There's no simple answer as to why Whipple fell from favour. Her characters are drawn from recognisable realities and prove highly capable of making their own decisions. It's not as though post-war female readers stopped believing in them. It was Whipple's curse to be writing about ordinary lives at a time when the world started to crave adventure. The everyday grind of managing at home during the war radically transformed readers' appetites.

Is it possible to read books like these now and still find pleasure in them? Absolutely, because our emotional centres remain unchanged, so Whipple's novels and short stories are as valid as they ever were.

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