Persephone’s other new novel for the Autumn/Winter is Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks. I’ve read it and reviewed it before, and I said then that Greenbanks was my favourite Persephone so far. Now, having read them all, my position still hasn’t changed; Greenbanks, despite being only her second novel (written in 1932) is, in my opinion, the best and most representative of her skills as a novelist. Spanning the lives of three generations of the Ashton family, from the early 19th century to the 1920s, its tenderness and gentle perception of humanity are moving, illuminating and so true, and the characters are completely absorbing. I could hardly bear to close the pages when I finally got to the end, and I was left in awe of how fine an author Whipple is. I’m so glad that this will now be easily available.
Louisa Ashton is the centre of Greenbanks; in her fifties, she lives in the eponymous large, comfortable house in the nondescript Northern town of Elton with her husband Robert and three of her adult children. Three more have flown the nest; Thomas and Rose are married and live with their spouses and children far from home, but Letty, married to Ambrose, has settled just a few yards away. As her own children have grown older and away from her, Louisa’s opportunities to lavish her maternal love are dwindling, and she is entering a phase of her life where she is feeling largely role-less. Into the breach steps Rachel, Letty’s young daughter, and it is the unwavering bond between grandmother and granddaughter in a rapidly changing world that forms much of the narrative arc of the novel.
This is a character heavy novel, and there is a large and intriguing cast of children, children in law, grandchildren and family acquaintances who all vie to control Louisa’s attention, affections and actions. The dynamic between Louisa’s adult children regarding who ‘deserves’ their mother’s leniency and efforts is especially expertly drawn. After Louisa’s errant husband Robert dies, Ambrose, Letty’s overbearing, staid husband who believes he knows best in all circumstances, takes over the running of Louisa’s finances and also steps into the role of head of the family, directing the futures of his wife’s siblings as well as his mother in law. Everything has to be done his way, and his total blindness to how he is smothering the spirits of everyone around him in his pursuit of perfection is brilliantly portrayed.
There are so many competing plots and characters that it is impossible for me to mention them all; one I do want to mention is Whipple’s exploration of the changing role and expectations of women. Louisa’s marriage was a failure; she married Robert as a teenager in the late 1800s and lived a life of a typical Victorian wife. She turned a blind eye to his infidelities, ran his house and brought up his children; passion, fulfilment and equality never came into it. In a rapidly changing world, Louisa’s daughters expect more than that, but Letty certainly doesn’t have it; her constant longing to escape, to be by herself and not have her life directed to her by a man she feels no passion for, is incredibly poignant. Letty’s sister Laura throws over her fiance after a silly argument and marries a rich man she despises for a position and a home of her own, but she soon realises her mistake and becomes desperately unhappy.
Laura is more daring than Letty and manages to make a life on her own terms, but Letty spends hers unfulfilled, lonely and pushed into a corner by a man who believes that his way of achieving happiness must be everybody’s. Alongside these women is the story of Kate Barlow, whose early fling with a married man and consequent illegitimate pregnancy and banishment from society has haunted her all of her life. As time moves on and standards and expectations change, her shame begins to become irrelevant to a new generation, and the attitudes Louisa’s contemporaries had about marriage and fidelity and expectations of life for women are radically upturned by their children and grandchildren. Whipple’s quietly feminist unfurling of the limitations of women’s lives and the cage marriage could so often be for those who made unwise decisions is fascinating, revealing and very moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed being drawn into these women’s lives and sharing in their struggles to find their own ways towards a personal sense of freedom.
For a largely uneventful novel that records the slow passing of time and day to day thoughts and feelings of an extended family group, Greenbanks is full of happenings, and as such it is rich and wonderfully dense, like a fruitcake. Life is not easy for the characters; there is sorrow, heartache and pain; but there is also much everyday joy in the simple pleasures of life and in the love shared between mothers and their children. Louisa is a remarkable matriarch, who radiates love and devotion, and Rachel is the epitome of glowing, straining, eager youth, sprinting ahead into a bright future. Greenbanks is a place of safety, an unchanging hub from which Louisa rules with a soft hand and a warm heart over the children she both loves and struggles to understand, and never stops wanting happiness for. It is ‘home’ in the true sense of the word, and despite all of the change and sadness and struggle its inhabitants face, it remains true, much like Louisa. This is a beautiful evocation of the power of motherly love and the skill and devotion involved in creating a home that welcomes and soothes children even when they have become parents themselves, and every time I read a Whipple I find it terribly sad that she didn’t have children herself, as she seems to understand the qualities of mothering exceptionally well.
Greenbanks is a chronicle of a family’s life, but it is also a chronicle of English life, and how it changed so much between the turn of the century and the end of WW1. As horizons widened, expectations and attitudes expanded, and types like Ambrose became obsolete. Women like Letty knew they could have more, and girls like Rachel could dream of a future where marriage was not a curse, but a blessing to be enjoyed alongside many other aspects of a full life. It’s such a quietly, powerfully beautiful novel that is a commentary on motherhood, relationships, the nature of home, marriage, self awareness, suffering, happiness and grace, and I just found it completely and utterly absorbing. It is a magical, wonderful novel that lingers with you for a long time after the pages have closed, so tight do its characters weave their way around your heart. This is writing as its finest, and most touching; it gets to the core of life, and affirms its beauty and worth and potential. It really is something quite special, and you must read it. My grateful thanks go to Persephone for sending this to me for review – from today it is available to purchase, so please go and put your orders in now!