“But she observed her sister, hoping to learn something. All she could find out, though, was that Lucy took an absorbed interest in things she herself could take no interest in at all; endless books for instance, tame solitary pursuits like gardening and walking, domestic drudgery like cooking and working in the house, in silly things like hens, and in going to the help of tiresome people in the village who were always appealing to her about something. Lucy also took an open, and in Vera’s opinion, eccentric interest in God. She wanted to know more and more about God, she said. She said life was discovery and that was why you didn’t need to mind about growing old, because the older you got the farther you walked down the road of life and the more you found out. She thought that after death you went on learning. She really believed it, you could see it in her face, glowing with an interest which merely surprised Vera who felt nothing of it at all.” – from They Were Sisters
This passage neatly sums up the character of Lucy and is why I love her so. I admire her seemingly simple view of life, her uncomplicated interests and her idea that life is all about discovery. I’ve read this paragraph several times and it thrills and appeals to me each time.
Is there a character from a novel whose philosophy of life resonates with you?
The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.
Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.
Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.
Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.
Ellen North lives at Netherfold with her publisher husband Avery. Her children live away from home; Hugh is in the army and Anne is at school, but they visit during breaks and adore their parents and their beautiful home. Their grandmother, Mrs. North, lives quite close by and is bored and lonely so she engages a bitter and sophisticated French girl, Louise, as her companion. As soon as Louise enters their lives their happy landscape is changed. She brings out the haughtiness in Mrs. North, causes Ellen to doubt her own attractiveness and ultimately tears the family apart when she starts a bold and dangerous affair with Avery. When the affair is discovered, all the joy and closeness they’d enjoyed is suddenly shattered.
Dorothy Whipple doesn’t bring us an original plot in Someone at a Distance – there are countless books about happy families being ruined by home wreckers. What she does bring is a heightened sense of feeling and drama to the familiar storyline. I felt the pain that Ellen endures when she loses her husband, her panic over how to support herself financially, her concern and despair over how her children will come through the betrayal. Whipple doesn’t minimize the small, everyday changes that are caused by divorce and heartbreak – her books are so achingly real. And that’s why I like them. I like that I can relate to her characters, to their foolishness, pride, fear and pettiness. And I can also relate to the tender mercies that make their lives better and bearable.
Someone at a Distance is really a very sad book, but it is one that is brilliant in its characterizations and in outlining how a very happy marriage and home can slowly be destroyed by tiny omissions and the subtle maneuvering of one very lonely and misunderstood young woman.
Have you read Someone at a Distance? What is your favorite Whipple novel?
Save the Date: Mary Stewart Reading Week will be September 15-22, 2013!
This is my second Whipple of the summer and a very entertaining read it turned out to be. I saw this described somewhere as 1930’s chick lit and I wouldn’t dispute that. It is very dramatic, emotional, concerned with families, marriage and children and is slightly neurotic. It wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed the ride.
Saunby Priory, the unkempt, rambling home of the Marwood family dominates the novel and is a touchstone for many of its characters. When the novel opens, Colonel Marwood lives in the house with his sister, Victoria, and his two distant daughters, Penelope and Christine. They are penniless and disconnected so the Colonel marries a local spinster, Anthea, hoping that she will put the house in order and bring discipline to his daughters. The early pages of the novel focus on Anthea so I thought that this novel was going to be her story and that we would read about her struggles with married life and financial difficulties. Whipple, however, steers the story down a completely different path and this unexpectedly becomes the tale of Christine and her experience after she leaves Saunby to get married and start a new life.
Colonel Marwood is obsessed with cricket and during his annual cricket fortnight Christine meets Nicholas Ashwell, a handsome son of privilege with a domineering father. Christine falls hopelessly in love and she and Nicholas hastily marry. Well, you can imagine the problems that accompany a young marriage between a sheltered wife and a spoiled and lazy husband.
Christine always turns to Saunby when she is most desperate and toward the end of the novel I realized that the priory (though you would think the title would have given me a clue) was the major character of the novel, ever stable, ever reliable, bringing comfort and sanity to nearly every character.
This is one of those novels that has an exuberantly happy ending, with Saunby playing the main role in the conclusion. The majority of the characters suffer terrible trauma and sadness so I was glad that Whipple gave them some relief, though as the novel ends in 1938 their happiness might be short lived.
The Priory is a stylish domestic novel that completely consumed my attention. It may resemble chick lit, but as with the best domestic novels it explores social ills and world politics as they affect children and mothers – the people who are sometimes most affected by poverty and war yet least recognized as survivors. But it is also entertaining, featuring strong characters and a pleasingly twisty plot. I’ve really enjoyed both Dorothy Whipple novels I’ve read and look forward to reading many more.
Any suggestions for my next Whipple? I’m thinking perhaps They Were Sisters will be the one I try next.
Greenbanks was my Persephone Secret Santa gift from Danielle way back in December. It was exactly what I wanted and I was so happy to get it, but then I put it on my bedside table and didn’t even think about it again until a few weeks ago when I was searching for a really good domestic novel to get lost in. Greenbanks fit the bill splendidly.
It tells the story of the Ashton family and is set before, during and a few years after the Great War. We see their world through the eyes of several of the female members of the family and it is mostly painful and baffling for them. They deal with adulterous spouses, missed romantic connections, death, financial worries and everyday heartbreak. The Ashton matriarch, Louisa, firmly holds on to her ideals during each and every challenge and is the backbone for her children and especially for her granddaughter, Rachel.
This novel is quiet and unassuming. The writing isn’t fancy and there aren’t any impressive lyrical passages. It is solid, wonderfully solid, storytelling and a very real and believable tale about families. Most of the characters are flawed and broken, just as are those of us who are reading their story and that made me like the novel even more. I also enjoyed the inclusion of little domestic details such as the descriptions of meal preparation, knitting and embroidery projects, interior design decisions and wardrobe choices.
I hope this doesn’t make it sound like a sweet or sappy novel because it isn’t at all. It is moving and thoughtful and I look forward to reading more novels by Dorothy Whipple. Have you read her novels? Which one do you recommend?
Go here to read a fascinating talk about Dorothy Whipple and the allure of her writing.