Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Persephone.
Beginning in 1909, Greenbanks is largely a poignant examination of the changing role of women but also a quiet family saga taking place during a critical period in history. The Ashton family reside in the estate Greenbanks. Louisa, a kindly and gentle housewife, is the matriarch and is happiest looking after and loving her children and grandchildren. Her husband, Richard, is a philanderer, which is an open secret within the family but Louisa turns a blind eye. Three of the grown Ashton children continue to live at Greenbanks while two of the girls are married. Letty has married Ambrose, the antithesis of her father, for his safety and stability and who is the mother of four children. The youngest at four years old, Rachel, is Louisa’s favourite grandchild and constant visitor at Greenbanks.
As events unfold, the Ashton women struggle to define or redefine their role and place. Letty, having married the stable but utterly boring and arrogant Ambrose, is stifled by her domestic and maternal duties:
‘Is there something wrong with me?’ she asked in alarm. ‘This is no more than other women have to put up with. Why don’t I like housekeeping?’
She thought of her mother who loved it, who snatched opportunities from every season: seville oranges for marmalade in January, strawberry, raspberry, plum as they appeared; who hailed the first spring cabbage with delight and presented early garden peas in triumph to her family; who used up unripe tomatoes in chutney and excess of mint in jelly for the winter mutton; who always had a pot of this or that to give to friends when they called … Her mother lived for and through other people, but Letty wanted something for herself. – p. 40
But Letty is committed to her place in life and the husband that she has chosen and she goes about her duties half-hearted waiting for the day when she can finally be free from her domestic duties. Letty is afraid of controversy and village gossip and Kate Barlow remains a constant warning to her.
Kate, a childhood schoolmate of the Ashton children, is a fallen woman who inadvertently returns to Greenbanks. As an orphan living with her grandfather, Louisa took pity on Kate and took Kate under her wings, trying to include her in activities Louisa’s own children participated in. Later as a teenager, at a dance Louisa chaperoned, Kate falls in love and has a short-lived fling with tragic circumstances, forcing Kate to leave the town in disgrace. Louisa bumps into Kate in London and after re-establishing a friendship with Kate, invites her to move to Greenbanks as Louisa’s companion to mixed opinions. Kate, however, remains suspicious of the society that has shunned her and who is resigned to repenting for her disgrace for the rest of her life.
Louisa herself is constantly changing and re-adjusting her role as her family grows and moves on, marries or simply become inaccessible. What is Louisa’s place after a lifetime spent as a Wife and Mother when she is no longer a wife and mother?
All her children had left her, she thought; died, married, gone to other places. All but one, now. It was one of life’s ironies that the only one left to her should be Jim, the one, she admitted, she could have best done without. They had all gone, but nothing in her life had been like this; this was a rending hole that nothing could fill again. – p. 79
Louisa’s relationship with her granddaughter Rachel is perhaps the most endearing and marks the contrast between two women from different generations. As the novel spans over sixteen very turbulent years, Rachel grows up in rapidly changing times and ideals. When selecting schools to send Rachel’s brothers, Ambrose muses that he:
intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. – p. 137
But Ambrose too is struggling to retain his place in society and as the patriarch of the family, acting only in a way that he has been bought up to know. Admittedly, his stubbornness prevents him from seeing the bigger picture or accepting an alternative perspective which is highlighted when a brilliant seventeen-year-old Rachel finally stands up to Ambrose:
‘Oxford – bah! Do you think the men want you there? Poking in, trying to ape men. I’ve no patience with these women intellectuals – lot of frumps!’
‘Good Lord, do you think I’m going to bother about whether the men want me there or not?’ cried Rachel. ‘And when have you seen any women intellectuals, Father? And aren’t men intellectuals ever frumps? These reasons for refusing a State Scholarship are all silly – positively silly.’ – p. 238.
These four women mark a period of mass transition – both socially and historically. A world war transpires within the novel at some stage which stuns the world and Greenbanks.
This is such a wonderful and beautiful story and rather heartbreaking too for what once was. The heartwarming relationship between Louisa and Rachel bookends the generations and Rachel is such a feisty character. She says one of my most favourite lines I’ve ever come across in a novel:
‘… have you had lunch?’
‘Er – no,’ said John. ‘Will you come to Reece’s?’
‘I’d love to, but I must pay for myself, because I want to eat a lot.’ – p. 324
Now there’s honesty for you! Dorothy Whipple writes so eloquently and quietly. The passing of time is so seamless. Characters grow and age without you realising it and by the book’s end, sixteen years have lapsed. I have read only one other Whipple, Someone at a Distance, but I think I Greenbanks tops that. A wonderful and, at times, a desperately sad read.