My love of Dorothy Whipple just keeps on growing with everything of hers I read. When I bought this slender volume for a song from ebay last year, I was initially disappointed when it arrived on my doormat. I say slender; really, I mean miniscule. At barely over 100 War Economy Standard wafer thin pages, this isn’t enough Whipple for my liking. Published in 1946, this book was her penultimate adult novel (Someone at a Distance was her last), and this shows in its finely honed style. Compared to her longer novels it lacks none of their meat, excellent characterisation or emotional engagement; despite its brevity, it expertly weaves a world so engrossing I didn’t want to leave it behind when I closed the pages.
Every Good Deed centres around the world of the gentle Miss Tophams. Emily and Susan are middle aged spinster sisters, perfectly content with their lot in life. They live in their tranquil, picturesque childhood home, The Willows, and have every comfort thanks to their late father’s careful provision for them. They live with the devoted Cook, who is more of a friend than a servant, and have very little, like Emma Woodhouse, to distress or vex them. Emily, the more outgoing of the sisters, busies herself with Committees and philanthropic works in the local town, while Susan, more shy and retiring, manages their home alongside Cook. Both ladies are absolutely delightful characters; kind, well meaning, gentle and loving, they encourage and support one another and see the best in everyone. Cook tries to look out for them, as she fears them being ill used, but the Miss Tophams refuse to believe that anyone could have a malicious bone in their body. This trusting nature will prove to be their downfall, as their quiet, pleasant life at The Willows is about to be overturned by the ‘Good Deed’ of the title.
As the book opens, Emily has just been elected Chairman of the Committee for the local Children’s Home. Filled with good intention and love for the little children in her care, Emily is keen to visit as often as possible and ease the burden of the nice but ineffectual Matron. On one of her visits, a local family of children has just been readmitted because their mother has run off again, and the eldest of these children, Gwen, is a horrid wild thing that none of the nurses in the Home can stand. Emily takes pity on the scheming girl, and later that night, after she has made a scene at the Home and Matron telephones for Emily’s help, Emily offers to bring her back to The Willows for the night.
Circumstances then spiral out of control, and Gwen never ends up going home. Their lives are turned upside down; Cook is forced to leave, Gwen steals and behaves badly, throwing everything Emily and Susan offer her back in their faces, and leaves the two good natured ladies heartbroken and their home a place of conflict and unrest. Gwen is a crushing burden for them to carry, an ever present worry, and a monster in their own home. Their love does not soften her wayward, uncaring heart, and she is determined to cause havoc and hurt the two women who have sacrificed everything they have for her. As she gets older, her behaviour only gets worse. The Miss Tophams, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to see her for who she truly is, only have their eyes opened to her true character when she finally runs away. A brief period of respite ensues, when their home becomes their own again, but it isn’t long before Gwen turns up at their front door, with a nasty surprise that will change all of their lives forever…
It’s the usual Whipple fare; a moral tale of a lovely home life of good people destroyed by a wicked outsider, but despite the familiar subject and message of goodness and redemption, it is not a hackneyed or saccharine story in any way. There are plenty of twists and turns, dramatic events, wonderful scenes and marvellous characters to delight, infuriate, and root for. The Miss Tophams are truly magnificent women, whose good, loving hearts do not falter or become cynical in the face of repeated evils done to them. Cook is also wonderful, as the strong, loving tie that binds the family together, and the voice of reason cutting against the rose tinted view of her employers. Despite her awfulness, the perfectly odious Gwen comes alive on the page, and my fury at her behaviour can only be a product of Whipple’s skill in drawing such realistic, rounded characters. Her horridness is a precursor to the nasty Louise in Someone at a Distance.
I absolutely loved this novel, short as it was; it is at once terrifying, in showing the havoc that can be wrought on a life by letting in a malevolent outside force, and uplifting, in showing the essential goodness of the human heart, and how love can heal all wounds. My heart was breaking and rejoicing at intervals throughout, and my only criticism would be that I wish it were longer. If you can get hold of this, it is a beautiful read. Sadly it is still out of print, but I have heard rumours that Persephone will be reprinting the entirety of Whipple’s oeuvre in due course, so do not despair! Speaking of entire oeuvres, since I yesterday received a beautiful American edition of Because of the Lockwoods from a lovely reader of my blog, I am now in possession of all of Dorothy’s novels apart from Greenbanks, which I have read but don’t own. I only have two more to read before I’ve read them all…but can I bear to have no Whipples left?