The inter-war years have yet to be hailed as a golden age of the English novel, but for writers such as JB Priestley, Howard Spring, Graham Greene it was a time when their reputations were being established. Dorothy Whipple's first novel was published in 1927. Ten more followed along with children's books and autobiographies. JB Priestley described her as the Jane Austen of the 20th century.
Dorothy was born in Edgeware Road off Revidge Road. Her mother Ada, formerly Cunliffe was the daughter of William Henry Cunliffe, head of a decorating, gilding and engraving company, who had executed commissions in many of the grand houses in the area. Her father Walter Stirrup was an architect and land agent, born in Eccleshill. His father James was a boot and shoe manufacturer.
Dorothy was one of eight children. Her circumstances were comfortable; there was a servant. The family lived at Elm Bank on St. Silas's Road and The Hawthorns on Duke's Brow. She was educated at the Miss Barretts' private school and then the High School and then the Convent of Notre Dame. After school she went to work in the Education Office.
Director of Education at the time was Alfred Henry Whipple, born in Grantham in Lincoln, the son of George Whipple from Plymouth, who owned a warehousing concern employing over 30 people. Dorothy became Alfred's secretary and later his wife. The couple married in 1917 moved to Nottingham in 1925. Dorothy concentrated on her career as a writer.
Dorothy had had a story published in the Blackburn Times as early as 1905, but after her move to Nottingham, her novel 'Young Anne' was accepted by Jonathan Cape. 'Greenbanks' followed and became a best seller, heading the Observer and Sunday Times lists. Dorothy found herself in the company of the HG Wells, JB Shaw, Somerset Maugham, JB Priestley; part of the literary scene.
In the days before the Second World War Dorothy and her husband moved to Kettering. Despite the gloomy war news, the bomb warnings, the billeting of evacuees and Canadian soldiers, Dorothy carried on with her work. Advanced sales for 'They Were Sisters' topped 32,000. Rank bought the film rights for 'They Knew Mr. Knight' and Gainsborough Pictures bought the rights for 'They Were Sisters.' She was asked to do the Lancashire volume for the County Book series, but declined, suggesting Jessica Lofthouse as someone more qualified. The War ended in triumph, triumph for Dorothy too as she was invited to the world premiere of 'They Were Sisters' at the Gaumont Theatre in Haymarket.
Henry died in 1958 and Dorothy came back to Blackburn living in Whinfield Place. She died in September 1966.
by Nicola Beauman
Nicola Beauman founded Persephone Books to restore some of the forgotten names of women's writing to their rightful place. Dorothy Whipple's novels were among those she was most pleased to reprint. Here she gives an assessment of Blackburn's most accomplished novelist.
Dorothy Whipple is one of Blackburn’s greatest writers, possibly its greatest writer but, sadly and mysteriously, she remains relatively neglected. Why is this?
She was an extremely popular writer in the 1930s and 1940s; then, in 1953, she wrote her last novel Someone at a Distance and it had no reviews and did not sell. The reason was that British society had changed so much since she started writing that her work abruptly dropped out of fashion and therefore from the book review pages of newspapers; or, to put it another way, the kind of readers who had enjoyed her work were now meant to be reading books by newer writers who might loosely be described as the ‘angry young men’ school. As Dorothy Whipple’s publisher told her in 1953, ‘editors have got mad about action and passion’, and although both are to be found in Dorothy Whipple’s novels, they are qualities that are presented in such a subtle, such an understated way, that the obtuse miss it altogether and think she is anodyne, simplistic, old-fashioned.
I came across Dorothy Whipple’ novels by chance when, in the early 1970s, I began research for a book about inter-war women writers that was eventually published by Virago in 1983. I admired and loved all the novels (there are eight, and three volumes of short stories) but my favourite was the last, Someone at a Distance. This is the one I would lend to friends over tea after fetching each other’s children, ‘nursery tea’ as we would call it with an ironic inflexion that is very Whipple-ish. So it was axiomatic that when I founded Persephone Books in the late 1990s Someone at a Distance had to be one of the first of the novels by women writers that we reprinted.
Since then we have reprinted three of the other novels and in the autumn of 2006 are bringing out a selection of her short stories drawn from the three volumes On Approval, After Tea and Wednesday. (One of these stories, ‘Wednesday’, can be found in the archive section of the Persephone Books website and one, ‘After Tea’, on this website.) And it would be no exaggeration to say that Dorothy Whipple has become many of our readers’ favourite Persephone writer.
And why is this? Well, in my view it is because of story. E M Forster said famously that ‘every novel tells a story’ and Dorothy Whipple has the gift of story-telling to an extraordinary degree. It is true that in one sense she does not write about ‘action and passion’. In The Priory we follow the fortunes of the people upstairs and downstairs in a large, decaying house near Nottingham; in They Knew Mr Knight a man borrows too much money – his wife cannot suppress her longing for a bigger house and garden – and goes to prison; in They Were Sisters three sisters marry very different men, one of whom (played by James Mason in the film based on the book) turns out to be a sadistic bully; and in Someone at a Distance a publisher in the Home Counties is seduced by an au pair and destroys his wife (‘Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife’), his marriage and his happiness. Perhaps none of this is action as many people think of it. But to the reader of the novel the plot constitutes such a complete page turner that the most frequent remark made by Persephone readers is – ‘I could not put it down’: again and again they say that they could not really understand it but they could not stop reading. Even the editor of this page, who works in the Community History Department at Blackburn Library, told us that he read They Knew Mr Knight over a weekend – ‘a long time since I did that. It reminded me of when I was young and could lose myself in books.’
Another important quality is the way Dorothy Whipple writes. She may not be an amazing stylist like the New Yorker writer Mollie Panter-Downes. But her prose is understated, to the point, subtle and intensely readable. It was not for nothing that the Spectator called Someone a Distance ‘a very good novel indeed abut the fragility and also the tenacity of love’ or that Nina Bawden wrote in her Preface that ‘it makes compulsive reading’ in its description of an ordinary family. Or that Salley Vickers called The Priory ‘the kind of book I really enjoy, funny, acutely observed, written in clear, melodious but unostentatious prose, it deserves renewed recognition as a minor classic – a delightful, well-written and clever book.’
Dorothy Whipple is a superb stylist, with a calm intelligence in the tradition of Mrs Gaskell. As The Times Literary Supplement wrote: her article of faith was always and above all ‘the supreme importance of people’.
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