As you may remember, a few weeks ago I hit the jackpot on Charing Cross Road, scooping up a lovely copy of Dorothy Whipple’s autobiography of her childhood, The Other Day, for an absolute song. I have been looking for this book for years, and have never seen a copy for less than three figures (which is absurd), so to say I was thrilled is an understatement! Since finishing her novels last year, I have felt rather bereft without any new Dorothy to discover, so reading this was pure pleasure from beginning to end. In this charming and evocative look at her childhood, Whipple takes us back to Edwardian Lancashire and into the world of a curious and inventive little girl. Her keen insight and eye for domestic detail is just as rich and vivid as in her novels, as is the often bittersweet nature of ordinary life, with its simple pleasures and quiet tragedies all going on behind the doors of respectable middle class suburbia.
The Other Day is told in a series of vignettes that range from pre school age up to the early teenage years. In all of them, Whipple’s family loom large. Her mother, Ada, was a sensible, practical and loving woman who encouraged her daughter’s independence and literary interests. Her father was a kind and adventurous man, an architect by trade, and a caring and involved parent who was amused by Dorothy’s frequent escapades. Her brothers were largely background noise, people to kick under tables and fight with. Perhaps most prominent were her grandmother, a kind and wise figure of love and understanding, who always had ginger biscuits on the kitchen sideboard and plenty of books for Dorothy to curl up and read in peace and quiet, and Kate, the family servant, whose brusque and bustling manner hid a deep love for the family she had come to adopt as her own. The Stirrups (Whipple was her married name) were middle class, living in a succession of nice houses in prosperous Lancashire towns, where everybody knew everybody else and there was always a family member living just around the corner. Dorothy and her brothers could go outside and play all day without a care in the world, and from a young age they were trusted to walk to and from school by themselves. The children wanted for nothing, though they were certainly not spoilt, and the whole atmosphere of the book is one of a safe warmth that ensured a feeling of being loved and protected.
Perhaps because of this environment of secure happiness that was the background of her childhood, the memories Whipple mainly recalls are of times of trouble or worry. Early in the book, she describes the confusion and distress she experienced on the night her beloved baby sister died; the sound of muffled tears, the fear and sadness on the faces of adults, the closed doors and running feet, the lack of any explanation. She perfectly captures the helplessness of a small child caught up in an adult drama, unable to understand what has happened but painfully aware that something dreadful they have no power to change or stop has taken place. Another time of anxiety was when she had to take the trip across town to a Convent to sit her music exam; the trivial worries of childhood are perfectly described. Dorothy doesn’t worry so much about the actual exam, but rather about not getting off at the right tram stop, not knowing which door to go through when she reaches the Convent, and whether or not she will get any lunch. One of my favourite memories is the delight Dorothy took in making a Christmas present for her brothers; thinking up the concept, collecting the bits and pieces to make it, the pent up secret delight in the prospect of seeing them open it and treasure it as much as she did, all built up to bursting point on Christmas morning, when she proudly presented her brothers with the gift she had spent so long making. Their indifference towards it was crushing. I remember many such efforts of my own being received in a less than grateful spirit by my siblings, and I felt little Dorothy’s pain acutely.
It’s not all bad memories, though, of course; there are countless wonderful moments of long, peaceful afternoons basking in the warm love of her grandmother, gleeful playtimes in sun dappled fields with school friends, mornings spent in a flour clouded kitchen, baking bread in quiet companionship with her mother, weekend outings to the country, guilty night time cuddles with her baby brother – all lovely and touching reminiscences from a childhood that was perfectly ordinary, yet also unique and special in its own way. What I found most interesting about reading this was what an adult self remembers of their childhood. When I try and look back over my own, I too only remember snapshots; the smell of the conifer trees at the end of the garden, the seemingly endless hot summers spent splashing in the blue tarpaulin paddling pool we filled up with freezing water from the garden hose, climbing trees in the park with my best friend, sitting with my brother and sister under the dining room table that had been made into a cave by draping a bed sheet over it, crying uncontrollably when my primary school teacher shouted at me for my messy handwriting, the triumph of being the star of the school play, the anger and frustration of being sent to my room for something my brother had done and which had been blamed on me. None of these memories are particularly significant or important, but for some reason they remain vivid, while others have faded. Often my sister or my brother will ask ‘do you remember when…’ and I will try and grasp for the memory, but fail to find it. Why have they retained that memory of a shared experience, while I haven’t?
Why did Dorothy Whipple remember certain events, and how and why did she choose to write about the particular ones she does? Memoirs and memories always raise these interesting questions, and that is why I find them so fascinating to read. What we choose to remember is quite telling of who we are as people, I think, and while The Other Day might be about Whipple’s childhood, it also says a lot about the adult she was, and the writer she was too. She shows in this, as well as in her novels, that it is the little things that make up a life, the insignificant nothings of everyday existence that form who we are. I do very much hope that this will be reprinted one day. It’s marvellous.