Persephone

Review: “Greenbanks” by Dorothy Whipple [1932]

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.

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Review: “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D. E. Stevenson [1934]

Miss Buncle’s Book was one of the first titles I decided to purchase when I finally found the beloved Persephone store and was completely overwhelmed by the collection. I had to pick just three from all these delights? I picked Miss Buncle because, to be honest, it had the word ‘book’ in the title. What’s not to like? And I wasn’t let down. It is one of the most delightful and charming books I’ve read.

Barbara Buncle, an unasuming middle-aged spinster, has lived her whole life in the quiet little village, Silverstream. To make up for her ever decreasing dividends upon which her income depends on, however, Miss Buncle decides to write a book based on Silverstream because, as Miss Buncle chirps, she can only write about what she knows and she knows her little village and its inhabitants. To her surprise, her manuscript is accepted by a publisher who is bemused and a little flummoxed by the book and its author, ‘John Smith’:

It was not written by a genius, of course, neither was it the babblings of an imbecile; but the author of it was either a very clever man writing with his tongue in his cheek, or else a very simple person writing in all good faith. – p.8

The publisher, Mr. Abbott, upon meeting and instantly liking Miss Buncle decides to publish the book under the pseudonym but changes the original title from Chronicles of an English Village to the much more punchy Disturber of the Peace. Due to Miss Buncle’s slight lack of imagination, the book is a very thinly veiled characterisation of Silverstream, known in the book as Copperfield. Miss Buncle did let her imagination fly though towards the end of the book where she imagines the futures for her ‘characters’ which includes an illicit affair or two and an unlikely couple heading off into the sunset to Samarkand.

To everybody’s surprise, the book becomes a bestseller but the book’s popularity finds its way quickly to Silverstream where its residents quickly realise their printed twins. Some residents are shocked at their portrayal in the book which Barbara had faithfully reconstructed, perhaps a little clearly. An angry mob of Silverstream residents group together and demand the book be pulled out of circulation and that John Smith show himself. While all the hoopla is happening, nobody suspects the quiet and unassuming Miss Buncle who is happily taking down notes for a sequel. However, with the townspeople breathing down Miss Buncle’s neck and narrowing down their list of suspects, both Miss Buncle and Mr. Abbott realise that the Copperfield stories will end once the sequel is published because that will finally reveal ‘John Smith’.

While I’ve probably just made this sound like somewhat of a thriller read, it is not. It is a charming and gentle read, satirical and very tongue-in-cheek. Periodically, particularly in the beginning, I was reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s gentle Cranford. As the book progressed, it began to feel quite weird because it felt like I was reading the book that Miss Buncle had written, a little Calvino-esque. My suspicions were confirmed when Mr. Abbott thought similarly too:

The theme was unusual and intriguing. Mr. Abbott had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a novel who wrote a novel – it was like a recurring decimal, he thought, or perhaps even more like a perspective of mirrors such as tailors use, in which the woman and her novel were reflected back and forth to infinity. – p. 295

The quiet, dowdy and self-sufficient Miss Buncle is an unlikely heroine. She is alone but is never pitied nor pitiful. She remains true to herself and becomes a rather inspiring figure.

The book is a wonderful read and I can why fans have been clamouring for its sequel, Miss Buncle’s Married, which Persephone has kindly obliged. The sequel title gives the story  line away a little though. 🙂