Dorothy Whipple -a perfect storyteller, not a pudding

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Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company. She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.

Old Mrs North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.

This is the opening of Dorothy Whipple’s last novel Someone at a Distance. Is it the kind of opening that would make agents jump up and down with excitement if they came across it in a submission today? Probably not, which is sad for those of us who love this kind of straightforward honest prose and storytelling.

Dorothy Whipple herself described it as ‘a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage.’ There is the deceived wife, the foolishly weak husband, the envious, greedy French girl who sets out to seduce him to console herself, the traumatised teenaged children. But the way it all happens makes the novel a page turner.

This is not a plot-driven novel; what interested Dorothy Whipple was character, and she writes about people with acute psychological insight, subtly through telling little details and in simple everyday scenes.

The tragedy to come is foreshadowed when Louise, coming as companion to old Mrs North, reads aloud to her from Emma Bovary. She is escaping the humiliation of being rejected by a man above her in the social hierarchy of the French provincial town where her parents tiptoe around her afraid of what they have hatched. To take Avery away from Ellen will give Louise power again and restore her self-confidence. Ellen ‘didn’t deserve what she had if she couldn’t keep it’.

Ellen is what may annoy some modern readers; she is a happy housewife, unselfish and naive by the standards of today. Goodness in heroines is out of fashion in fiction. But she is thoroughly human: “All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”

The way Ellen deals with what happens to her and makes a new life for herself and her children gives the novel its redemptive drive. There is a sense of people coming together, crossing social barriers, in a common humanity. Among them is an old lady in the retirement hotel where Ellen takes a job: “But Mrs. Brockington, old, alone, almost crippled by rheumatism, had faith and courage. She had more. She had a warm serenity, and when Ellen was with her, she almost had it too. For goodness is catching. Mrs. Brockington was further on the road Ellen wanted to travel, and because Mrs. Brockington had got there, Ellen felt she might get there too.”

It’s fifty years this month since Dorothy Whipple died. Her novels were hugely popular in the 30s and 40s; J. B. Priestley described her as a worthy successor to Jane Austen. But when Someone at a Distance was published in 1953 it attracted no major reviews. She wrote no more novels and died in 1966 believing that her work would be forgotten.

It will always be a mystery (because Virago has rescued so many marvellous forgotten authors) that when Carmen Callil and her colleagues at Virago in the seventies were deciding which books to republish, they claimed that Dorothy Whipples’s ‘prose and content absolutely defeated us’. They invented something which they called the Dorothy Whipple line, below which they would not go – meaning that they considered her too lowbrow. Jane Austen – as usual – hit the nail on the head when she wrote that one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

Thankfully Nicola Beauman founder of Persephone Books didn’t feel the same way and has been vindicated in her championship. She published Someone at a Distance in 1999, the third in Persephone’s list, and subsequently many more of Dorothy Whipple’s novels: They Knew Mr Knight, The Priory, They Were Sisters, Greenbanks, High Wages, Because of the Lockwoods and The Closed Door and Other Stories. Dorothy Whipple is now Persephone’s best-selling author – and all this in spite of her surname which it must be admitted does make one think of a fancy pudding …

Wit, moral seriousness and a seeing eye. There are not many authors whom one can read over and over again with continuing pleasure and gratitude, but Dorothy Whipple is one of them.

 

 

Open up that bottom drawer!

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Does everyone else have a drawer stuffed with short story manuscripts?

I have. These are stories which over the years I’ve sent out to competitions in spasmodic bursts of energy and confidence. When they didn’t win a prize – to be fair this wasn’t actually surprising! – back they went into the drawer.

Sometimes they were pulled out again a few months later. A fresh eye might iron out a few ungraceful sentences, get rid of those sneaky verbal tics,  change the opening sentence.  Now it’s got a new coating of paint surely it’s in with a chance!

But no. The judges in another competition still didn’t like it. This time it’s harder to understand. WHAT IS WRONG with this story? Another tweaking? Maybe, but possibly it hasn’t got the essential bones. No amount of face lifting is going to disguise that.

Yet there is the occasional story in that pile which you are especially proud of.  It’s your favourite and you know you can’t make it any better by fiddling around with it in the hope of pleasing someone else.  Is this when you need to have faith in your own judgment?

Across the River , which won a Writers’ Forum magazine competition and is published in the October issue, is one I first wrote a dozen years ago and has had only tiny changes made to it since then, for it was written with a rare feeling of rightness and is sharp with memories of childhood and the Beaulieu river.

Yet this story failed to impress the judges of several competitions though it was once shortlisted; nor did it appeal to Woman’s Weekly magazine. It’s not until this year that my belief in it was vindicated. Thank you Writers’ Forum magazine and Lorraine Mace their short story judge.

I’m also especially pleased at the way the story has been illustrated with an evocative photo of a boy rowing a dinghy, wearing one of those bulky life jackets that I remember so well. Thanks are due to the magazine’s editor for this perfect choice …

Altogether it’s been worth the twelve years of waiting. Perhaps we should all have another look through that bottom drawer …

 

 

Across the River

If you like beautifully written short stories with ‘heart’, do pick up October’s Writers’ Forum and read Across the River, the winning entry in its monthly competition (by ninevoices’ Tanya). As judge Lorraine Mace says, ‘Tanya paints a heart-breaking picture of a boy who believes he is the reason for the cracks in his parents’ marriage.’ But that’s not the end of the story – which builds to a gentle, well-observed climax you don’t see coming.

Jane Austen’s Bad Hair Day

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Sitting in the hairdresser’s recently, admiring a yummy mummy bedecked in foils like a silver hedgehog while having her hair colours done, I was reminded how little things have changed since Jane Austen’s day.

Here is Jane, writing to Cassandra in December 1798 about what a chore keeping one’s hair presentable could be:

‘I have made myself two or three caps to wear of evenings since I came home, and they save me a world of torment as to hair-dressing, which at present gives me no trouble beyond washing and brushing, for my long hair is always plaited up out of sight, and my short hair curls up well enough to want not papering. I have had it cut lately by Mr Butler.’ 

Without hair dryers, the washing of hair would have been a bore, especially in winter. Water for the process was something that, for Jane, probably came from a well, either in the house itself, or close by. With water having to be fetched in heavy iron-bound wooden buckets, and an imperial gallon weighing in the region of ten pounds, this was a laborious process, especially if there were no menservants available.

Jane would have owned curling tongs for her hair, in the way that we have hair straighteners, electric wands, or ceramic rotating irons today. It was customary to use curling papers, and then allow the hair to dry naturally, or to speed the process with an iron, heated by the fire. The latter method needed a steady hand and careful timing to avoid singeing the hair to an unsightly frizzle. One can imagine the fuss that would be created in a house full of fashion-conscious daughters on the day of a ball – Lydia Bennett would have been particularly impatient to be first in any queue.

No wonder the wearing of neat white caps was so popular for everyday – and we now know that under that cap of hers, Jane wore long plaits of hair, set off by the kiss curls around her face created by ‘Mr Butler’.

This fascinating snippet came from my researches in Roy and Lesley Adkins’s invaluable book: Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England – who were also responsible for my piece on Jane Austen’s Embarrassing Aunt (with her penchant for shoplifting) on this blog on 10 May 2016.

Research is such an enjoyable displacement activity!

 

 

 

 

I’m not going to Hull this year

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Hats off to all those shortlisted and longlisted in the 2016 To Hull and Back competition! See http://www.christopherfielden.com/short-story-competition/results-2016.php for those fortunate names – and for their photos and biographies if you follow the links.

I scanned down the list hurriedly in order (I confess) to see if my name was there. It wasn’t. Then I looked again, for any other of the ninevoices. Alas, no. So my rather nasty story, about a bully at an appalling office party who gets his comeuppance when dressed as Santa Claus in our local shopping centre, will have to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.

This comp has got quite a few mentions on this blog. We must wait until next month to learn the winners. And then there’ll be an anthology – last year’s included some remarkably quirky stories. (‘Quirky’ is an understatement for many of them … ) In Chris Fielden’s words, “there needs to be some element of humour within the story, even if it’s just one brief amusing moment. Black comedy and dark humour is fine, as is fluffy kitten mainstream amusement.”

Well done the eventual winners.

Holding a Gun to my Head

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On Friday, after posting details of the competitions for September, I wondered briefly about having a go at the ghost story. But with no idea for a plot, and only days to go, I shrugged my shoulders and went back to working on my novel.

However, during the night I was restless – too many coffees, I suspect – and a story outline came into my head. Could I make the deadline? Could I manage something approximating a proper story within the time-frame?

Reader, I had a go. Ten minutes ago, I pressed the ‘send’ button and released a sketchy, barely-revised story into the ether. It wasn’t ready, but I had to send it off or admit defeat.

This was a positive result. My chances of getting anywhere depend on there only being five other entries! (There will be six stories read by actors at the Festival) And I’m actually nervous about printing off a copy and proof-reading the thing. BUT, taking part has resulted in me having a new story that I can work on, re-write, and hopefully ultimately turn into something worth having.

Hurrah for tight deadlines.

Competitions to Enter in September

With holidays mostly behind us here are some competitions to get the juices flowing again:

Ghost Story Competition. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of that famous ghost story contest between Lord Bryon, John Polidori and Mary Shelley original ghost stories are being sought by the Scottish Storytelling Centre of up to 1,200 words ‘that have been written to be read aloud’. Although there is no monetary prize, the six winning stories will be told at the National Library of Scotland on Halloween as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. The stories will be filmed as they are told – and who knows what fame may follow. There is no entry fee, but the deadline is imminent – 5 September. Writers do not need to be based in Scotland to enter. Details from http://writ.rs/2016ghoststorycomp

Bedford International Writing Competition is seeking short stories up to 3,000 words, or poems of 40 lines. The entry fee is £5, or three for £10. Prizes: £200, £100, £50. Deadline 30 September. Details: http://www.bedfordwriting-competition.co.uk

Galley Beggar Press invite entries for its 2016/2017 Short Story Prize, with the prize pot increased to £1,000, with an alternative prize of year-long editorial support. Galley Beggar Press was set up to support ‘ambitious, groundbreaking work and was the initial publisher of Eimaer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.’ The winning, shortlisted and longlisted authors will be published as part of the Galley Beggar Singles Club. Stories should be up to 6,000 words and the entry fee is £10 per story. Closing date is 30 September. Details from the website: http://galleybeggar.co.uk

The Manchester Writing Competition 2016 offers a spectacular first prize of £10,000 for an original short story of up to 2,500 words. The entry fee (understandably, with such a prize pot) is £17.50 and the deadline is Friday 23 September. Details from http://www.manchesterwritingcompetition.co.uk

Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition for the first 3,000 words. Prize: £5,000. Entry (for women only) fee: £25. Deadline 19 September. Details: mslexia.co.uk

Erewash Open Short Story Competition 2016. Stories of up to 2,000 words. Fee: £3 for one entry, or £2.50 for two or more. Prizes: £100, £60, £25, £15. Details (including definition of ‘New Writer’ and ‘Open’ categories) erewashwriterscompetiton.weebly.com

PLEASE remember to check entry details, as these sometimes get changed at short notice!