What a wonderful and charming book this is. Written in 1932, Greenbanks tells the story of the Ashton family spanning from around 1910 to 1925. It is centered around the house, Greenbanks, in the Lancashire village of Elton, and revolves mainly around Louisa Ashton, Mother and Grandmother. Louisa has five (very different) children who have all started to make their own way in the world too and so Louisa dotes on her 4 year old Granddaughter, Rachel. Greenbanks may be a lovely, beautifully written book about a family in a grand old house but there is plenty of room for sibling rivalry, illegitimate births, divorce, tyranical fathers and heartache. In fact all these are done so well that I was in awe of how well Whipple understood human emotion such as depression, jealousy, shame and love.
The book is set at during the early part of the last century when ideas and ideals are shifting and in particular Whipple explores the changing roles of women at this time. Louisa is the gentle, kind head of Greenbanks (after her philandering husband dies) but her daughters are exploring new territories that are still thought of as a huge embarassment to the gossiping folks of Elton. Daughters Letty and Laura both carving out new paths for themselves and lodger Kate Barlow still lives the shame and stigma of having an illegitimate child all those years ago. Granddaughter Rachel, much to her Father Ambrose's profound disappointment, is intelligent and is desperate to continue her studies at University when she grows up, but Ambrose wants a dutiful daughter who will greet him at the door and "take his hat".
The character of Ambrose Harding is actually one of my favourite characters despite his prigishness and I found him (unintentionally on his part) very amusing: he is so old-fashioned and is constantly baffled as to why people don't behave the way he expects and wants them to.
"And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much."
"That's what this modern education did for them. These modern girls, smoking, riding motor-bicycles, flying airplanes, breaking speed records; they would do anything for notice. What else could it be for? Men did these things for the love of them, to try them out, or to advance knowledge, experience, but women did them for notice, just to get into the papers, to be made a fuss of."
The quotes made me laugh, especially when I think of how times have changed now. But even with Ambroses sexist rants I could still sympathise with him to a degree as he was born in an age where men were head of the house and no one (especially a wife or daughter) would ever question him. His three other children (all boys) were a huge disappointment to him also as they didn't follow the direction he wanted them to follow and went their own way; Ambrose felt unloved and and couldn't understand why. Such a brilliantly drawn character.
A final quote that made me laugh (because it could have been me saying it) Iwas when Letty who in frustration cries:
""Is there something wrong with me?" she asked in alarm. "This is no more than other women have to put up with. Why don't I like housekeeping?""
Verdict: I highly recommend this gorgeous book. Perfect for a Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea (or in the bath, or in the postoffice queue....pretty much anywhere really). Loved it!
on 15 July 2009
A lovely Dorothy Whipple, published in 1932 and alas, difficult to get hold of. (What a pity it hasn't been re-published by Persephone but maybe they will get around to it eventually. I'd have chosen it over Whipple's High Wages which they are publishing later this year.)
Louisa is the mother of a large, grown-up family and this is the rambling tale of their vicissitudes from just before WW1 into the 1920s: marital infidelity, illegitimate babies, divorce, autocratic parents and rebellious off-spring. As ever, Whipple's characters are utterly convincing; Louisa is a loving matriarch, (only 56 at the start of the book!) shockable but unshakeable; there is Kate, the embittered unmarried mother, rendered frigid by public opinion; Ambrose, pompous and overbearing, wanting to be loved but never understanding why he isn't lovable; and his bored wife Letty, who married at a time when there few options for women. Whipple does a brilliant job showing how WW1 changes their lives and attitudes: 'The war had blown most people's ideas sky-high, and the pieces had not yet come down. When they did come down, they would never fit together again as they had done before the war.'
Greenbanks is the name of Louisa's solid, old-fashioned family house. And I love the way Whipple describes domestic interiors: a posy of flowers in a lustre jug, an embroidered bedspread. This is one of her best, highly recommended.
on 24 October 2011
A few months ago, at a library talk, the Persephone Books reissue of Greenbanks was mentioned, and the delight in the air was tangible.
Some had read and loved the book, and all were thrilled at the prospect of another Whipple novel reappearing.
And now I have been to Greenbanks.
While I was there, I watched the story of an extended family, and the story of their family home, from the years before the Great War, through the years of that war, and into the years that followed.
I came to understand their lives, their characters, their relationships, their hopes, their regrets, their emotions ...
Dorothy Whipple illuminated their lives quite perfectly, and I was completely captivated.
At the centre of the story is Louisa Ashton, a woman raised with Victorian values and who has found great happiness raising her family and running her home.
And at first her life seemed quite idyllic. The story opened on Christmas day, snow had fallen, and Louisa's grown children and grandchildren had all gathered at Greenbanks for the festivities.
But I soon saw that Louisa's life wasn't perfect. It was real. Louisa loved and supported her family, but they sometimes took that for granted. Her husband was charming, but he was also a philanderer. Her children were caught up with their own lives.
Louisa doted on Rachel, her youngest granddaughter. As she grew Rachel spent much of her time at Greenbanks with her grandmother, and the two formed the closest of bonds.
Rachel's own home was less happy. Her father, Ambrose, was rigid and controlling, and quite unable to understand that others might not see things in the same way that he did. And Letty, her mother, quietly subverted his wishes where she could, wishing that she could shake off her domestic responsibilities.
But Letty wasn't brave enough to do anything about it. Maybe that was because she knew what happened to Kate Barlow ...
Now, this is the point at which I would love to say much more, about characters, about stories, about themes. But I mustn't.
Because one of the things I loved about this book was that sometimes stories played out just as I expected them to, but at other times they played out quite differently, and yet in ways that were completely natural and right. Such clever writing.
I'd hate to spoil that for anyone else by giving too much away.
And such beautiful writing. It is cool, it is calm, and it picks up every detail. Every emotion too, without ever being sentimental. Because the author stands back and allows her readers to see, oh so clearly, the humanity she sets before them.
Humanity captured perfectly. With every side of every relationship gently illuminated. With such understanding of marriage, of motherhood, of sibling bonds, of friendship.
Understanding too of how communities work, for good and for bad.
And an era captured perfectly. An era of change, much of it wrought by war, and an era when the lives of women, the possibilities open to them, changed hugely.
One of the great joys of Greenbanks was watching the evolution. From Louisa, who accepted the values instilled by a Victorian childhood. Through Letty and Laura, who saw other possibilities but were each, to some degree, held back. To Rachel, who saw even more possibilities, and reached for them.
There really is so much here, much more than I can express.
Because, through a quiet family saga, Dorothy Whipple has said everything that needed to be said, and she has said it queerly and beautifully.
And although I have left Greenbanks, I know it will stay with me for a long, long time.
on 5 December 2011
Like another of Dorothy Whipple's novels, The Priory, Greenbanks turns a property into a character, and the Greenbanks of this novel is the site for all of the book's main twists and developments.
Louisa is a devoted mother and grandmother, who's stood by and supported her husband and children whether through right or wrong. She shows herself to be a loyal, kind and devoted woman, who repeatedly ends up putting herself out for others, sacrificing her wants, and considering the needs of others. But before you think she's a nauseating do-gooder, Louisa isn't at all. Hers is simply a tale of kindness winning out.
With a family tree of philanderers, money grabbers and big heads, Louisa has quietly looked out for the underdog. And we watch as she nurtures former neighbour Kate, who was shunned by the village for having had an illegitimate child as a teenager. And we watch as Louisa provides a home for her free-spirited granddaughter Rachel, one that the girl is denied by her own parents due to her father's pig-headedness.
These are frequent traits in a Whipple novel - women picking up the pieces after men squander their money, or men bring shame on a family, or find other selfish ways to ruin a good woman. But at the same time, these novels don't hate men - they are also filled with kind and sensitive men, and there are plenty of loathsome female characters to choose from in a Whipple novel.
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. Her children are now grown up and beginning to make their way in the world. Letty has married the solid Ambrose, and given Louisa twin grandsons and a delightful granddaughter in Rachel; 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.
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 (Dad's Army) type - puffed up with his own self-importance and operating way beyond his level of achievement. There is room for humour too, mostly at Ambrose's expense.
Reading this gripping 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!).
on 31 December 2012
I heartily recommend this book. Really nothing happens, but everything happens. The narration is masterful in its light-touch and I can understand why this has been described as an early feminist novel. The lack of choice and empowerment for women is described but in this, as in all things, the reader is left to make up her own mind.
I enjoyed this book and would also strongly recommend 'Someone at a Distance' also by Whipple, a brilliant, brilliant book.
on 19 August 2015
Everything Dorothy Whipple writes is marvellous. She should she far, far better known, Is it because she was a woman writer? (So many women writers, after all, have to be 'rediscovered'.) Or because she was provincial, not a London salon type? Who knows? But once discovered, loved and swapped about with other Whipple lovers forever.
Once again Dorothy Whipple gets inside the head of the middle-aged and older woman. She tells the story of a family, warts and all, in the period before and after World War 1. Completely real and realistic. Particularly real is Ambrose. The father and husband who rules the roost only to find that when his strength and power desert him, his inability to engender mutually fulfilling relationships lead to the people he loved (in his own way) deserting him too. The book doesn't really have a beginning, middle and End - it just starts one Christmas and ends at a point when many questions have been answered. All the characters could have their own sequel...
I've read a number of Dorothy Whipple's books. Please visit my other reviews.
on 10 January 2012
This is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying books I've read in ages. It's the sort of book it would be great to curl up with on a rainy afternoon or a Sunday morning lie-in. It's an easy read, but its simplicity is deceptive as it's well-written with beautifully drawn characters. It's also very interesting from a social history perspective, particularly regarding the changing status of women in the early decades of the 20th century.
I've given it 4 instead of 5 stars because, for me, the ending was too abrupt. I felt the emotional development of the characters was so well paced in the rest of the book that the swift changes (mainly affecting Rachel and Kate) in the last few chapters felt a bit discordant.
This is the first Dorothy Whipple book I've read and I'm looking forward to reading her others.
on 11 July 2014
I love The stories of the author Dorothy Whipple. They are very well written and transport you to a past time. I have read this book more than once (although years apart) it's beautifully written and the characters are 'real' by the end of the book I felt like I 'knew them'. I have read all of her books and own all but the novel Greenbanks. It's such a pity this title hasn't been re-published. I would buy it like a shot if it was!