Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

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!

32 comments

  1. Greenbanks is one of my favourite Whipples; I love your way of describing it as being like a fruitcake. It is amazing that after writing Young Anne which is just so/so, she was able to concoct Greenbanks which is so full and much more indicative of the rest of her work which often centres around family relations. I’m glad that Persephone has published this one, and I love the fabric they’ve chosen this time.

    Just a question, but did you mean this was your favourite Whipple or your favourite Persephone? If it’s not your favourite Persephone, I would be curious to know which one is.

    1. Hi Virginia! Yes, it surprised me too when I realised that Greenbanks was only her second novel. Who’d have thought it? It is so accomplished compared to Young Anne, and really, I think she never bettered it. I’m thrilled that it’s finally been published as it was the only one of her novels I hadn’t managed to find my own copy of.

      I meant it was my favourite Whipple, but you know, it may well be my favourite Persephone too, enjoyment wise. I love a lot of Persephone books but none has really touched me in the way this has. Apart from maybe The Home maker…that is a very special book too.

    1. It’s the perfect book to curl up with, Miss Darcy! My favourite before I read Greenbanks was The Priory…I think you’ll be changing your mind very soon!

  2. Dorothy Whipple has been a big favourite with John and me for MANY years.🙂 It’s ages since I read Greenbanks (we have it in an old copy -phew – that saved me a bit of money!) and now I MUST re-read it! I read your review aloud and now my daughter, Jane, wants to read it, too. Such is the power of your beautifully written and engaging reviews!

      1. And it cost me 15p! (Inscribed in pencil on the first page!) I read the opening page aloud to John (DH) and Jane and we realised that we had to keep it till December, as it’s Christmas Day when the story opens. A wee treat to savour the anticipation of!

  3. I want to read it! I love Dorothy Whipples characters. I feel like I know them. They knew Mr Knight and Somewhere from a Distance were rivoting.

    I enjoyed this review very much.

  4. “Greenbanks is full of happenings, and as such it is rich and wonderfully dense, like a fruitcake.” Wonderful, Rachel, and a wonderful review. I will have to see about getting this.

  5. Dorothy Whipple does it again and so do you, Rachel. I am desperate to read this thanks to your evocative review! You just know you’re in for a cosy read and a good silent argument with at least one of the characters in a Whipple novel. In this case it looks like Ambrose is my guy! And I’m melting already at the grandmother/granddaughter storyline. It reminds me of how much I enjoyed that aspect of The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens, another wonderful Persephone publication.

    1. Thank you Darlene! I know you will love this – and I know you will want to punch Ambrose!! I am yet to read The Winds of Heaven…I will remedy that soon. I think a nice big Persephone order will be coming my way next month as I prepare to enter my winter hibernation!!

  6. I love Greenbanks. I had to inter-library loan it from a college library. I wish the Persephones were easier to find in the states!

    1. I’m glad you’ve managed to get hold of a copy, Julie! I’m sorry Persephones are so hard to find for you…Persephone should open a shop in America for its American fans!

  7. This sounds good, and very full of names that begin with L. Is that by design — I mean does someone in the book say “Hey! We all begin with the letter L!”, or does Dorothy Whipple just have very little regard for how much harder it is to keep track of characters when their names alliterate?

  8. I would love to read this. I’ve loved all of Dorothy Whipple’s book but I could never find this one. So glad to know that Persephone is reissuing it.

  9. Oh Rachel thank you for reviewing this so eloquently. It’s about a Rachel, a grandmother relationship and having so enjoyed High Wages earlier this year I’d love to read another Whipple. This seems to be the one for me.

  10. I’m waaaaay behind with the latest Persphone titles, but the one Whipple title I read, I loved. This sounds very good – I love female-centred narratives.

  11. I have to admit I only skimmed the review — I’m really looking forward to more Whipple and I want to be utterly surprised. But I’m glad you still love it and I look forward to reading it! It’s definitely going on my Christmas wish list.

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