Dorothy, London, and a very good Brownie

I am currently lying on the sofa feeling excessively exhausted after a long day in London. I stayed at my friend Emma’s in Hackney last night, and we went to a wonderful independent cinema called the Rio in trendy Dalston to watch Penelope Cruz’s new film Broken Embraces. It was interesting and absorbing and very funny in places; if you don’t mind reading subtitles do go and see it.

Today we decided to go to St Paul’s as neither of us had ever been, and it was, while a bit overpriced (£11!!), an absolute delight. Stunning workmanship all round, with the most terrific mosaics on the ceilings and imposing marble sculptures on the monuments to long forgotten dead soldiers. We went up to the Whispering Gallery which was nearly 300 steps and my poor calves are certainly feeling it now, but it was well worth it for the view down into the cathedral floor; it was just magnificent. And it’s true that you can hear a whisper travelling round the walls – I don’t know how it works but it does, and Emma and I had far too much fun than 23 year olds should have whispering our names to each other across the dome! Then we went even further up to the outside observatory which has beautiful panoramic views across London. It’s such a higgledy-piggledy city from the sky, with old buildings jostling for space with huge new glass skyscrapers that are appearing as if from nowhere all over the place, but it has a beauty all of its own and I felt quite proud of my majestic city when I was up there, looking down over it.

After St Paul’s we went to see the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars, which was bombed in the Blitz. Now only bits of the external walls, the tower and the empty windows remain, and it really is incredible to see this relic of wartime London nestling amongst modern office buildings. It was quite moving to stand there and look at the blank windows and think of the terror that must have been felt by ordinary Londoners as they watched their homes and buildings they loved destroyed in seconds around them by bombs that fell indiscriminantly from the sky.

After this and a spot of lunch we went to the Courtauld and saw the wonderful Beyond Bloomsbury exhibition, all about the Omega workshops. They had some gorgeous textiles on display, and I spotted a couple of Persephone endpapers – those for The Wise Virgins and William – An Englishman. The creativity and daring of these artists, among them Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, was really quite breathtaking, considering they were working in a pre war England that was still very Victorian in its design tastes. The fluid lines, geometric patterns, bright colours and plenty of nubile female forms were really so beautiful, and I wished I could bring some of the fabrics home with me. Of course at the time the Omega Workshop was very expensive to buy from – the accompanying leaflet notes that a small rug would have set its owner back £600, which would have put their products out of most people’s price ranges. This illustrates the contradiction in the Bloomsbury Group’s values, I suppose; they wanted to break away from the world of their wealthy, class conscious, Victorian parents, and enjoyed living in almost socialist communes, but they still could not do without maids and their work was not accessible to the lower orders of society; their novels and art might have been groundbreaking, but they were also designed for an implied audience of an educated, privileged, wealthy and cultured elite. Since reading Alison Light’s excellent Mrs Woolf and the Servants, I have seen the Bloomsbury Group in a new light; their snobbery towards those less educated and wealthy as themselves has made me look at their work in a new way. They might have wanted to shake things up a bit, but their desire for change and reform was never, it seems to me anyway, designed to help anyone else but themselves have more fulfilling and, certainly in many of the group’s member’s cases, more sexually free lives.

After the Courtauld I was inspired by Claire’s post about being invited for tea at Bea’s of Bloomsbury by Nicola Beauman to go to there myself for tea and cake, and so Emma and I trotted off down Kingsway to get ourselves something tasty. I had a chai latte and a delicious brownie, and Emma had tea and a strawberry vanilla cupcake, which was equally scrumptious. It is highly recommended, though if you go do reserve a seat first – we were ousted onto the pavement as there were no tables!

And, as we ended up very near to the Persephone shop (though we didn’t go to it today), now is the perfect time to make the seamless transition into a book review. For Persephone Reading Week, which is now literally last week’s news, I read Dorothy Whipple’s The Closed Door and Other Stories, and my goodness, was it a marvellous read. I knew I would love these stories as Dorothy can do no wrong in my eyes, and I actually want to be Dorothy Whipple (but an alive version) whenever I read one of her novels, because I want to be able to write in such a wry, well observed, compassionate and engrossing way myself. I simply can’t believe that her books have been left to languish out of print and forgotten for so long. It is sacrilege. But anyway, back to the stories. Each one is a magnificent, perfectly constructed gem. A couple are fairly long, about sixty pages, but the others are only a few pages each, yet within those pages, a whole world is unfolded before you. They are each about family relationships and most of them featured a suffocated child living with selfish parents, trapped within the walls of home and desperate to get out. Another, Wednesday, was about a woman separated from her children through divorce and the pain she feels at only getting to see them on a Wednesday, and the distance growing between her and the children who seem to care a little less each time that she is no longer a part of their everyday lives. The Closed Door, the opening story, was probably my favourite, but they are all so remarkably powerful and touching stories of the suffering ordinary human beings can cause others through their selfishness that I had to just sit back after reading some of them and goodness…this woman is a genius. It is easy for some to cast her off as a woman writing about mundane everyday things, but while she does write about the everday she also writes about the everyman; the secret selfish thoughts we all have, our desires, our despairs, our capacity to love deeply and selflessly when the spirit moves us…she saw people, the good and the bad, did Dorothy Whipple, and she wrote about life in a way that makes the ordinary extraordinary, and that is why I love her so. I am on tenterhooks waiting for Persephone to print High Wages…it can’t be long to wait now!

Photo accompanying is of my copy ofThe Closed Door and Other Stories, as well as a leaflet and postcard from the Bloomsbury exhibition.

*The photos of London are not mine – I forgot my camera today so they are substitutes from online. Just thought I should make that clear!

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

I just love Dorothy Whipple. Reading her books gives me the same feeling of cosiness as Sunday evenings in Winter, sitting in my pyjamas in front of the (gas) fire, with a cup of tea, some hot buttered crumpets, a stack of chocolate biscuits, and some form of BBC literary adaptation on the TV. It’s complete comforting bliss, but with the nagging feeling of something just around the corner that is going to be unpleasant…this would be Monday, ready to make you get up at an ungodly hour and board a train to a job you’d rather not be doing. And that’s exactly what Whipple’s books are all like, in my experience…a warm, cosy, comforting world threatened by an external, uncontrollable and unstoppable force just lingering around the corner.

And this is great stuff. I suppose if Dorothy Whipple were writing today her books would have pastel covers and be read by people who also like Jodi Picoult and Cecilia Ahern, because between the 30’s and 50’s Dorothy W was a very popular lady indeed, with her books being Book Society choices, being read by every war hardened romantically starved housewife, and even being made into long forgotten films. I intensely dislike chick lit but somehow if it’s 50 years old and comes in a musty smelling hardback, it’s alright with me. Kind of like bodice ripping soft porn yarns; I’d run a mile from that sort of book if it were modern, but somehow, Grace Metalious I’m talking to you, I don’t mind a bit of sexy sex from the days when ladies wore suspenders if it’s wrapped in an original dustjacket and looks respectable on my shelf.

Carmen Callil at Virago might have turned her nose up at Whipple and refused to republish her because she thought her books were too lowbrow and terribly written (the rudeness!) but thankfully Nicola Beauman saw sense and has republished some of her novels under the Persephone imprint, of which my only complaint is – why hasn’t she published them all?? Since discovering the wonderful world of Whipple I have been hunting down all the ones Persephone doesn’t reprint, and trying to find them at a reasonable price to boot, so I was delighted to snag Young Anne from ebay for 99p a month or so ago. I just got around to reading it this weekend, and I thought it was marvellous.

It tells the story of Anne Pritchard who lives in a fairly well to do Northern town with her unsatisfactory family and beloved servant Emily. We are briefly sped through Anne’s childhood in the first couple of chapters, and then Anne becomes 18 and lovely and falls in love with her best friend Mildred’s cousin George Yates. But of course these things are never simple and while Anne and George love each other with an intense passion, Anne finds she can’t carry on after a nasty revelation from her cousin (which was a bit unrealistic I thought, but it must be one of those things you have to understand from a mid century viewpoint) and she gives George up…then war gets declared and Anne becomes a secretary. At work she meets Richard Soames, who is much older than her but intelligent and funny and eventually they marry. Anne thinks everything will be lovely and she will be happy once she is married, but then the 1920s hit and Anne is beautiful and loves to dance and wants to have a sparkling fun life like her other young friends…but Soames wants none of it and Anne’s life becomes increasingly lonely. When George comes back after the war, Anne realises just how dissatisfied she is with her life, and everything gets turned upside down…I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to ruin the plot, but it all ends in characteristic Whipple style, with a nice bit of self sacrifice and hope for the future, which reflects her Christian moral stance that is clearly evident throughout all of her books.

It wasn’t the best Whipple I’ve read, but as a first novel it’s really very good. It is also interesting from the respect of being able to see the starting point of her talents and how she developed them over her career. Like her later novels, Young Anne is well characterised, involving, realistic and simple yet engrossing in its way of telling the story of small town life and all of its secret disappointments. It is definitely worth a read if you can get hold of a copy, and if you’d like to borrow mine, email me as I’m happy to send it out to people. I know how rare it is so it would be rather selfish of me to just let it sit gathering dust on my shelf. You would have to promise to send it back though!!