Well, after all the excitement of my recent news (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look here), I’m going to calm things down by taking you into the cosy, relaxed world of Dorothy Whipple. Much like Jane Austen, Dorothy is an excellent balm for a troubled soul, and I picked up Because of the Lockwoods, sent to me by the same lovely reader who sent me The Last Station, last week when I was particularly anxious about my New York plans and also was off work with a nasty cold. Curled up on the sofa, feeling sorry for myself, I was rapidly gripped by the world that opened up before me, and helplessly emotionally involved with the characters Whipple had created. Because of the Lockwoods, sadly out of print, is remarkably good, and easily on a par with, if not better than, the four Whipple novels Persephone have reprinted. I could hardly bear to put it down, and it left me in awe of just how well Dorothy Whipple manages to weave a canvas of human life so vivid, so realistic, so unbearably, brilliantly, alive. This is a book not to be missed.
It tells the story of the Hunters and the Lockwoods, neighbours in a Northern, provincial mill town, whose lives take very different paths after the early death of Richard Hunter. Originally on the same par financially, and with children of the same age, after Richard suddenly dies with hardly any money saved, Mrs Hunter and her children are reduced to much humbler circumstances (the Hunters can’t even afford a maid – you know it must be bad when that happens!), and the families’ friendship changes from one of equality to one of patron and patronised. As a favour to her friend, Mrs Lockwood asks her husband, a solicitor, to deal with Mrs Hunter’s papers after her husband’s death. Ineffectual and helpless without her husband, to whom she deferred to in everything, Mrs Hunter is immensely grateful for the rather selfish Mr Lockwood’s grudgingly given advice, and accepts everything he suggests without question. Unbeknownst to her, Mr Lockwood takes advantage of her ignorance, and pretends that her husband never paid him back a loan he borrowed shortly before his death. As a result, he defrauds Mrs Hunter out of a good deal of money, and his way of atoning is by continuing to reluctantly and inadequately advise her on monetary matters as the years go by.
Mrs Lockwood continues her ‘friendship’ with Mrs Hunter despite her fall in social position, and patronisingly invites her to her large, comfortable home regularly to boast of her wealth and generosity, gives her presents of used clothing, and generally enjoys using her as a vessel to brag about her life and make her feel that she is a wonderfully kind person. Mrs Hunter, in her gentle hearted good natured way, feels grateful and honoured by Mrs Lockwood’s patronage, but her youngest daughter, Thea, develops an intense resentment for the family that she feels downtrodden and bullied by. The Lockwood’s twin daughters, Muriel and Bee, bully Thea and let her know just how insignificant and poor she is. Thea is jealous of the girls’ nice clothes and comfortable lifestyle, while the Hunters have nothing and have to scrimp and save for everything they can get. To make matters worse, Mr Lockwood, who controls the family finances, forces both Martin and Molly, Thea’s older siblings, to finish school early and take jobs they hate, because he can’t be bothered to help Mrs Hunter work out her finances to get them the jobs they really want. Thea lives in fear that she too will be forced to leave school early, and she determines that she won’t have her life ruled over by the patronising and snobbish Lockwoods.
Thea decides that she wants to go to France after she finishes school, but so do the Lockwood girls, and Mrs Lockwood is incensed at the idea that Thea should be allowed to go too. The Lockwoods are adamant that the Hunters should remember their inferior place at all times, and the thought that any Hunter should have the same advantage of one of their own precious children is anathema to them. However, Thea is a determined, ambitious, and proud girl, and she pushes for the new start she is desperate for. Thea’s courage and hard work pay off, and she soon finds herself in France, though unlike the Lockwood girls, she has to work for her keep. French life agrees with Thea enormously, and she blossoms, but a romance is misunderstood, and before she knows it, she has been shipped back home with a broken heart and an unjustly sullied reputation. However, an unexpected find in the bottom of her father’s old bag and a hand of kindness extended by a neighbour soon change the balance of power between the two opposing families, and the Lockwoods are finally forced to realise that wealth and status are as easily lost as gained, and true worth lies not in how well others think of you, but of how well you think of others.
This book made me so angry in places I wanted to leap in and smack the Lockwoods for their nastiness, pride and despicable treatment of the Hunters. Mrs Lockwood’s odious attitude of patronising ‘generosity’ and belief that the Hunters should be grateful for whatever they are given disgusted me, and the fact that Mrs Lockwood and Mrs Hunter never called each other by their first names demonstrated how shallow their relationship was. Mrs Lockwood is friends with Mrs Hunter merely to make her feel better about herself, and the kind and gentle Mrs Hunter indulges Mrs Lockwood’s vanity by being pitiably grateful for any crumbs of aid she can get. Mrs Hunter’s bewilderment at being poor and losing her status is terribly sad, but I also wanted to shake her and say ‘get a backbone, woman!’. Her ineffectual, vague nature infuriated me at times, and provided a perfect case study for why women should never allow themselves to become dependent on their husbands for everything. It made me quite upset to think of the thousands of women like this in the early 20th century, who were left helpless and unable to support themselves when their male protectors had died. Thank goodness for feminism!
Thea was a magnificent character, and her strong will, courage and pride were marvellous to behold. She makes plenty of mistakes, but her heart is in the right place, and her determination to not let her family’s social status prevent her from living the life she wanted was a real inspiration. There is much more in this novel I could describe, but I don’t want to give it all away. All I can say is that this is another masterpiece from the pen of Dorothy Whipple, and I urge you all to read it; it is a wide and dramatic canvas that provides a stark warning to those who value status and material things over all else, and cannot see beyond a person’s circumstances to the value of the heart within. Because of the Lockwoods is absolutely fantastic, and fingers crossed that it will be reprinted soon. For some reason, it seems to be far more readily available second hand in the US than in the UK; I have seen several copies available cheaply, so do take advantage of that if you can – you won’t be disappointed, I promise! Below is a photo of the beautiful endpapers; worth buying the book for alone I think!