Portrait of a middle-class family before & after WWI

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple.

Not considering myself a typical Persephone Books reader – Tsk! I hear you say, there is no such thing, I have loved the handful of the beautiful dove grey covered books that I’ve read so far, (the last of which was The Hopkins Manuscript earlier this year).  If there is no such thing as a typical Persephone reader, there is such a thing as a quintessential Persephone book – and Greenbanks is such a one.  I was delighted to be offered a review copy, and thus to be introduced to my first Dorothy Whipple…

Greenbanks was Whipple’s third novel, first published in 1932.  The title is the name of a house in a small northern town, the residence of the Ashton family for generations. The book spans the years around the first world war.

Louisa Ashton is the matriarch of the family, with daughters Letty and Laura, sons Jim and Charles.  Her children are now grown up and beginning to make their way in the world.  Letty has married the solid Ambrose, and given Louisa a delightful granddaughter in Rachel, and twin grandsons; Laura is courting a nice young man, Cyril; Jim is now helping to manage the family business; and Charles, her beloved youngest, has yet to find his métier.

With her family around her you would think she’d be content, but Louisa, a kind woman worries about others constantly including Kate Barlow – a young woman of the town who’s rumoured to have got herself into trouble. Then Laura breaks it off with Cecil, and marries George, an older man, in a fit of pique. When Louisa’s husband Robert dies, Ambrose takes on looking at fter the family finances, and Jim takes on the factory. We all wonder how Letty puts up with the stifling Ambrose, and how long Charles will take Jim’s bullying. Louisa is grateful for the steadying presence of her granddaughter Rachel, who is fast growing up and developing a mind of her own, much to her father’s annoyance.

War intervenes, and everything changes. We will follow the Ashton family closely with all its ups and downs over the next years into the 1920s.  The pressures on the family continue to mount, and with them will come moments of sublime happiness, but also pain and tragedy, and many hard decisions to be made.

Being a middle-class family drama set in a small northern town, my immediate first impression was that this novel could be a successor to my namesake’s Cranford. Small town gossip and politicking abound, and there is snobbishness aplenty; but the domesticity of the opening peels back to reveal a novel of morals and social comment hiding beneath the genteel veneer and ever-present embroidery.

If, before the Great war, you became a fallen woman – there was no chance for you to redeem yourself, something poor Kate Barlow had to cope with.  But afterwards, with so many young men gone, and women having been empowered to work, there was less chance of your past catching up with you – there might be a chance at a happy ending for some. This empowerment also extended to family roles, as Ambrose, who had visions of being an old-fashioned patriarch, finds out being attacked on all sides by three generations of Ashton women now standing up for themselves.

Alongside the slight changes in moral stance with the time, we see the march of technology and changes in the style of living. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in the demise of the horse and cart which is highlighted in the manner of Robert’s death. Later in the novel the advent of the telephone provides for a lovely scene where Louisa cuts Ambrose off mid-flow. The novel covers part of the same period of course as the TV series of Downton Abbey. Although the two families may share some concerns, there is little in common between them, and Greenbanks manages to have high drama without over-egging it like Downton tends to, although I do adore it.

Although this is an emotional novel, that’s not to say there is no room for humour – most of which is at Ambrose’s expense.  When Letty and he go to London to stay with Laura, there are countless vignettes which show off his pomposity…

Ambrose’s appointment was not until two-thirty the following day. He therefore accompanied Letty in the morning. They walked about Regent Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street and Piccadilly, but without pausing to look in the shop windows, except the silversmiths in which Ambrose was interested. The most tantalizing bargains kept occurring in Letty’s eyes: a sweet, cheap little frock for Rachel, and a marvellous line of sandshoes for the boys at half the price she had to pay in Elton. If only Ambrose would see that he could save by spending a little money in advance! But she knew he would not; his budget rules were rigid. She repressed the bargain-hunting fervour and followed him wherever he led. But what a waste of good shop windows and places where you could have coffee and a rest! If only she had been with someone else, or even by herself!

Men and shopping!

At 374 pages (plus afterword), there is plenty of space for character development, but the book never drags. We really get to know the women of the Ashton family particularly well, as we do Kate whom Louisa keeps trying to rescue.  Of the sons, Jim is present by his absence – a workaholic, and Charles flits from one thing to another, popping back to cheer his mother up now and then.  The real star of the male characters, and arguably the most fun of all is Ambrose.  He’s a real Captain Mainwearing (from TV’s Dad’s Army) type – puffed up with his own self-importance and operating way beyond his level of achievement.

Reading this gripping, well-crafted and satisfying novel has made me into an instant Dorothy Whipple fan, and I will look forward to reading as many of her books as I can (all Persephone editions of course!). (9.5/10)

* * * * *
My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, pub Oct 2011, 392 pages)
Cranfordby Elizabeth Gaskell
Downton Abbey – Series 1 & 2 Box Set [DVD]

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10 thoughts on “Portrait of a middle-class family before & after WWI

  1. Ive never heard of Greenbanks but it sounds really interesting. I’m fascinated by the changes wrought on society (particularly in Britain) by the World Wars.

    I’ve added this near the top of my TBR list – thanks for the recommendation!

    • Debbie, Whipple is one of the stars of the Persephone catalogue. I’ve only heard good things about her novels. It was lovely to see the relative freedom that the post-war years gave Rachel, the youngest woman in this novel in the later chapters

  2. I like your new design – very stylish. This sounds like a good book – if rather long. Obviously the aesthetics of Persephone please you too, which makes for a good read all round. I find Hesperus Press are pleasing me quite a bit at the moment too.

    • Tom, although this was quite long – it sped by as I got so involved in the lives of the Ashton family. I’ve yet to read a dud Persephone book – and they look and feel so lovely too. High production standards do add to the reading experience; Hesperus are nice books too, but I’ve not encountered many of them yet – any particular recommendations?

  3. This is on my Christmas wish list so hopefully junior daughter will take a hint and discover the Persephone shop when she visits her big sister in London just before Christmas!
    I love Dorothy Whipple but if you have taken a liking to this sort of book now, can I recommend Richmal Crompton’s adult books?
    I have read four now including Family Roundabout which Persephone publish and they are all really absorbing books which give fascinating insights into Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    • Liz, I love the occasional book of this sort – I’ve actually got half a dozen Persephones on the shelf, including one of the Richmal Cromptons, Saplings, more Whipple and Laski. Looking forward to them as sort of guilty pleasures every other month or so. I also have several Barbara Pyms and Penelope Fitzgeralds now in the TBR. I think I appreciate them now as I am more interested in older things too, as opposed to always looking ahead – I hope that doesn’t mean my glass is less full than it used to be though!

  4. Like this time in history. So many books set in this period and make very interesting reading. This sounds like my cup of tea definitely.

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