‘I can’t write. Fiction seems so trivial. Fact is too terrible.’ This is Dorothy Whipple writing in her diary on the invasion of Poland in 1939.
Perhaps some of us feel like this today. Does anyone really need this novel we are struggling to finish?
Whatever the right answer, we can be glad that Dorothy Whipple didn’t give up writing. She was then a much-loved author of five novels, but writing each one was a struggle and she never stopped being surprised at her success and grateful for it. ‘…I still have no confidence in myself. But I should be happy if it were not for the War. As it is I wake up in the night and lie crushed by the horror of it all. In the day-time I think of the terror and suffering under the perfect summer sky.’
Random Commentary, reissued by Persephone Books in 2020, gives us a heart-warming insight into their best-selling author as a delightfully all-too-human person as well as a writer. It’s a collection of extracts from diaries and notebooks from 1925 to 1945, selected by Dorothy Whipple in 1965. It was published the following year, shortly before she died. For modern writers, unselfconfident or anxious about getting things wrong, Dorothy Whipple comes across as someone with whom we can share a laugh, but also as someone finding their way through the mix of the trivial and deeper things in life, alongside the difficulties of being a writer. She’s companionable. It comes like a healing breath.
It’s a good title: it does read like a random commentary – snippets about writing and publishers, the bitter disappointments of early rejection, the joys of unexpected success, her marriage to her much older husband, the exasperating frustrations and interruptions of domestic life.
Many of the entries are of everyday incidents and encounters with people she met, sprinkled with small, telling details and insights. Some of them are very funny; all of them show how wise and empathetic she was. We can see clearly how this acute sensitivity to the feelings of ordinary people behind their façades finds its way into her books. Plots come second to the way people behave to each other.
She’s hard on herself as a writer – telling herself that she must take more risks. ‘I am flat and uninspired; and to tell the truth – lazy.’ ‘I cannot get on with Greenbanks. Shall I ever have done with it? It is about nothing… – a hopeless failure, I feel.’ ‘I waste time. I am a bad workman… I am only enthusiastic when I am sitting in a chair doing nothing or lying in bed in the early morning.’
Nor did it come easily. ‘I am in despair about my novel. I have only to start writing a novel to become flat and stale. A short story invigorates me, a novel depresses me during all the weary months I am writing it. I ought to remember that, so far, it has always been all right in the end. But oh! What has to be gone through before an end can be reached. I must get on and see what this book is like after the first draft. Nothing for it but to get it down.’
It’s clear that she was incapable of promoting herself, and wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. Nor was she any good at being photographed: ‘I simply could not make an un-selfconscious face. I tried prunes and prisms, cheese, everything I could think of – to no avail. I escaped from the studio with as much relief as if it had been the dentist’s…’
Moral values are firmly, though unobtrusively, present throughout Dorothy Whipple’s writing. What did Dorothy Whipple think about God? Some entries tell us something: ‘Life without God is meaningless – for me, at any rate. And no apology for that, either. Assailed by doubts and unanswerable questions, I pray the prayer of the Frenchman: “Mon Dieu, si vous existez, faites que je vous connaisse.” And I hold to Jesus Christ, truly the “Light of the World”, otherwise so dark… When I puzzle about how Jesus could be both God and man, I think Maud Royden’s is the only feasible answer: “God was perfectly received at one point.” Anyway, I will now follow the advice – also from a pulpit: When you start worrying about your soul, go out and do something for somebody.’
‘I feel “accompanied”. I feel I live in communication with some unseen power of good.’ Dorothy Whipple loved the countryside, and knew about those moments of glimpsing something of eternity in the beauty of the natural world: ‘The hawthorn trees were bowed almost to the ground with their burden of rain. I lifted some branches and the thickly-studded flowers and buds, waxen, starry, were a marvel. I heard a creaking sound in the sky, and looked up to see a swan flying over – white in the grey sky, with outstretched neck. A lovely sight. I felt as if something marvellous had happened. As if the whole day was different.’
Getting cross – why is it so cheering when even the good and kind people you admire admit to these feelings! – comes up in several entertaining entries. ‘I am annoyed to get a postcard, through Good Housekeeping, from a niggling Scot in Dundee who objects to my saying in “Mr Knight” in the Good Housekeeping serial that the children “shrieked silently” at the sight of Freda’s perm. “Why spoil a fine story with such stuff?” he asks. I should like to biff him on the head.’
Publicity material that gets everything wrong irritates: “The pleasantest novel of the year”. It isn’t pleasant and the year is over or not begun. “An ordinary everyday family, the Blakes who found a fairy godfather in the local financier”. Terrible, terrible! Knight is their evil genius, not their fairy god-father.’ A Daily Telegraph review gets stick for calling her book “a gently entrancing comedy”. ‘I see nothing entrancing in going to prison.’
‘I am up in my attic to work at 11.15, after having dusted, swept, cooked and tidied wildly. I am cross not to have time for my writing, and cross because I must take the car to be oiled and greased, cross to have to go to the Nursing Home… to go to the office… cross at the thought of all there is to do tomorrow, and the next day and the next.’
There are visitors who stay too long and constant interruptions ‘…my work is my life, I can’t help it. Other people don’t understand, though. I think they think I am “playing at it”. When they interrupt me, they usually say: “It’s only me.” As if it matters who it is! In my case, persons from Porlock abound, though I am not, I must say, engaged on a work of genius.’ But crossness and exasperation are always fleeting, melting away in a swift change of mood and a recognition of human contrariness: ‘When I have time to write, I don’t want to. When I haven’t time, I want to.’
She is often funny about men. Especially about her husband Henry, an educational administrator, who at times sounds rather like Robert, the husband in E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady. ‘I said to Henry: “D’you know we’ve been married twenty-three years today.” “Oh?” he said turning his newspaper. “Seems longer, doesn’t it?” Strange. I’d rather have that than any compliment.’
Perhaps a favourite entry for me was when Dorothy Whipple learns that her novel They Were Sisters is the Book Society Choice for November 1943. She rushes into the kitchen and, together with Henry and Nelly their beloved cook, ‘celebrated in orangeade, because there was nothing else to celebrate with – but we didn’t need anything else…’
Today a writer would be expected to post these triumphs on social media. Things were different then. How much simpler and nicer it sounds.