Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple

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?

31 comments

  1. A quick check shows that I must hang my head in shame and admit that there are none of Whipple’s books on my shelves. Of course, the advantage this gives me is that it means I still have all of them to read. Where do you suggest I start?

    1. Well it’s about time you got going! I think the best starting place for Whipple is Someone at a Distance – that seems to be largely agreed upon as being her best book. I wouldn’t agree – personally I think Greenbanks is her masterpiece, but that’s out of print, and very hard to get hold of. Of the Persephone reprints, The Priory is my favourite; it’s a nice meaty family saga which is what I like. Let me know how you get on!

  2. The title, along with your wonderful synopsis, of this book (which, sadly, my local library does not have) reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s famous maxim, “No good deed goes unpunished.” I often think of that when some attempt at great kindness on my part goes awry.

    1. Yes I think that quote or something along those lines is said in the book after things start going wrong! It’s a shame isn’t it – often the things we do that are most well meaning end up making a complicated mess! I’m sorry this isn’t in your library – it’s hard to get hold of but I am certain Persephone will reprint them all eventually. How could they not? I want them to do another ‘Persephone Life’ and reprint her autobiography because I’m desperate to read it and copies are around £100!

  3. No Whipples left is a sad thought indeed! I read your review faster and faster wanting to find out what could possiby happen next…I made myself laugh! How wonderful it would be to have one stop shopping for all of Whipples works, I really hope Persephone manages it.

    1. Isn’t it just! You are funny, Darlene! I’m glad you enjoyed it! It would really be wonderful, and also if they included her autobiography and her ‘Random Commentary’, and also more of her short stories. Frankly you can never have too much Whipple and I want to read everything there is eventually!

  4. Well, I came home today with two Willa Cather’s and must I now rush out for a Whipple? Delightful, again!

    Seriously, this was such a provocative post, Rachel, and I know I must find out why Cook had to leave and what Gwen’s nasty surprise is upon her return to The Willows. Your words conjure up such excitement that I know it will someday be topping the pile on my nightstand. Thank you for another great review.

    1. I’m so glad you’re on a Cather run, but Whipples shouldn’t be too hard for you to find either!

      Thank you – I’m so pleased it has inspired you and I hope a Whipple finds its way onto your nightstand very soon!

  5. Rachel you’re so lucky! I haven’t read this one. I might start combing ebay just in case I get lucky and find this and Greenbanks. Lovely review and though I’m disappointed its a short novel, I’d still love to read it.

    1. I know, I really am – I have been very fortunate at tracking down those out of print titles, though I must say I wish I had a copy of Greenbanks of my own. One day I will find it! It’s a fun challenge to search for it…it’s the first book I look for in any bookshop. I won’t rest until I uncover it!

      Glad you liked the review – it is short but it’s so wonderful regardless – testament to Dorothy’s skills I think!

  6. Whipple has become my official great white whale. They are so hard to come buy in this neck of the woods that I might go a little nuts trying to find them. But will no doubt have fun trying.

    1. The thrill of the chase is so exciting, isn’t it! It’s annoying when you find an author you love but can’t get hold of, but then there is that immense feeling of suspense and excitement every time you enter a bookshop…today could be the day you find that elusive volume! Or is that just me?!

  7. This one is at my library and I took it out and started to read it (large print and all), only…. my grandma was someone who adopted several troubled kids in her day and one of them acted a lot like Gwen and although my grandma wasn’t as naive as the Topham sisters, I just couldn’t read it. I suppose if you say it turns out ok I might try again, but it brought out all these unexpected responses in me. If that makes sense…

    1. I can understand this would have been a difficult read considering the circumstances – it does work out alright in the end but there is some distress to go through beforehand – from what you’ve said you might want to give it a miss.

  8. I kn ow what you mean about the thought of having no more of one’s favourite author left…

    I haven’t been able to get hold of this one from the library and Amazon don’t have it either😦 So am very envious to read your review. Sounds like an interesting one.

    1. I knew you’d understand Verity! Oh this one is very hard to find and not cheap either – I was lucky to find a copy. I have seen copies crop up on ebay now and again though – I bought mine for £10 and it was money well spent in my opinion. This is coming from the girl who never spends more than £2 on a book!

  9. I know.. it’s so sad when you’ve finished reading all the books of a beloved author. But look on the bright side, you get to reread!😀 I am eager to read more Whipple after my first.

    1. Isn’t it? I was so sad when I finally read Mansfield Park and had no more Austen left.😦

      That is very true – when I am finished reading her books and I can start all over again! They will become faithful, familiar friends. I look forward to that!

  10. You write a great book review. Basically, now I want to read every book you have reviewed since I began reading your blog! : )

  11. I am very lucky that the county library has a pretty good stock of Dorothy Whipple’s books, albeit all pretty ancient, so I am working my way through them. They don’t have Greenbanks, The Priory or this one (which I must admit I hadn’t heard about) but they have her autobiograpy and a rather random memoir originally published in 1961 which I found very interesting if a bit baffling. It covers from 1925 to the early 1940’s but because there are very few dates in it, it’s sometimes quite hard to work out when she is writing.
    Thank Heavens for Persephone re-publishing these!
    Also loving Richmal Crompton’s adult books too – the library appears to have quite a few of those as well!

    1. You are lucky! Mine is useless with anything older than 1980, it seems! I’d love to read her autobiographical stuff. I am so glad Persephone decided to republish, otherwise I would never have discovered her at all! Though part of me wishes I had many years ago as I’m sure her novels would have been cheaper and easier to find than they are now!

      Richmal Crompton’s adult books are hard to find now as well so your library is a gold mine! I wonder if they know how valuable they’ve become?! I loved Family Roundabout and would really like to read more but at the prices I’ve seen for them I’m going to have to wait until I’m in a better paid job – or move to a place with a better local library!

  12. After I saw your comment on my recent post I had to go and request Greenbanks–am hoping to at least borrow a copy and perhaps interlibrary loan will come through for me! I do hope Persephone keeps publishing her works–I’ve only had a small taste now of her writing but she really is a marvelous writer.

    1. Oh Danielle, that’s so exciting! I hope the library manages to find you a copy! Me too – I want all of her work available easily and inexpensively to people, because it is such life affirming, beautiful stuff!

  13. I recently bought a batch of old books, one of which was ‘Every good Deed.’ Searching the author, of whom I had never heard of, I found your blog. I am glad to know that there might be a market for the book (or at least my local bookshop might be interested). A very interesting and helpful read. Thanks.

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