Harriet Evans, in her Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods, writes of the “readability factor” in Dorothy Whipple’s work & speculates that she is not better known & valued as a novelist because her books are just so satisfying to read that critics think she can’t be writing “real literature“. Well, I can testify to the unputdownability of her work. It was a very hot day last Saturday & I sat down at about 11am with a glass of iced tea & Because of the Lockwoods . I was at about p130 & I finished the book that evening. Apart from necessary breaks for more iced tea, lunch & opening the door to the cats & trying to convince them that they should stay inside, I read over 300pp in a day. I can’t remember the last time I did that. I kept planning to stop but then “I’ll read just one more chapter. I must find out how Thea gets on at the Pensionnat or whether Martin will accept the dress clothes from Mr Lockwood or will Oliver’s plans for Molly work out?”. In the end I just forgot about the heat & anything else I should have been doing & raced on to the end of a very satisfying novel.
The Hunters & the Lockwoods are neighbours. Richard Hunter’s early death leaves his widow at a loss, emotionally & financially, & she eagerly clutches at the idea that William Lockwood will step in & help her with her finances even though he does this with a very bad grace. Money is going to be tight & Mrs Hunter has three children to bring up so they must sell their house on the pleasant outskirts of Aldworth, a Northern manufacturing town. The house they buy in Byron Place is cramped & inconvenient. The neighbourhood is not what the Hunters have been used to & Mrs Hunter struggles on, trying to make ends meet, keeping her distance from the neighbours. The Hunters are patronised by the Lockwoods, expected to be grateful for invitations to Christmas parties. Mrs Hunter is an ineffectual woman, pathetically grateful for Mrs Lockwood’s cast-off clothing & completely unable to reassess her circumstances & pull herself out of the slump she went into at her husband’s death.
Molly & Martin Hunter are forced to leave school early. Mrs Lockwood finds work for Molly as a governess & Martin, who longs to be a doctor, ends up as a bank clerk. Neither are suited for these jobs but they seem unable to change their circumstances. Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children is a different proposition altogether. Thea resents the Lockwoods & their unwilling patronage. She endured humiliating visits to Mr Lockwood’s office as a child, watched his contemptuous dismissal of her mother & suffered through the torments of social occasions with the monstrously self-satisfied twins Bea & Muriel Lockwood. She manages to stay on at school, convinces her mother to allow her to go to France as an au pair for a year (unfortunately to the same pensionnat as the Lockwoods) &, when that ends disastrously, is the catalyst for the turn around in the family fortunes that comes after much heartache & misery.
Her mother, Molly and Martin wrote every week, mostly to say they really had no news. Their letters seemed to be both wistful and flat. Now that she was at a distance from her family, with only their letters to represent them, she noticed a factor common to all three: a lack of interest in what they were doing, in the way they had to spend their lives. Her mother wasn’t interested in housework, Molly wasn’t interested in governessing, Martin wasn’t interested in the bank. Thea was shocked to make this discovery. Not only was it a waste of life, but she wondered, too, if it was a fault inherent in the family. With anxiety, she examined herself to see if it was in her as well. But though she had to admit to frequent dissatisfaction, resentment, indignation, she didn’t think she could be accused of lack of interest.
Thea is the life force in the Hunter family but it’s Oliver Reade who really makes change a reality through sheer energy & will. When the Reades move into Byron Place they see it as a step up from Gas Street where they had lived in poverty. Oliver’s hard work has taken his mother & sister to a respectable home. The difference in the two families is as simple as their attitude to Byron Place. For the Hunters, it’s a humiliating drop in social status & Mrs Hunter’s pretensions to gentility prevent her from becoming part of the neighbourhood. She’s lonely & her children are unhappy in their uncongenial jobs. For the Reades, it’s an upward move. Oliver pursues Thea & is undeterred by her cold indifference. His attempts to become friends are rejected but he gradually becomes a friend of the family, helping Molly & Martin to eventually break free of the inertia they seem unable to overcome. His attempts to better himself, attending night school & taking elocution lessons are endearing rather than comic & his steadfast love for Thea is very touching. Oliver is successful despite his origins & the Hunter’s superior social class is no help to them without the money to keep up the lifestyle they once had. Eventually Oliver is the catalyst for the tremendous & very satisfying conclusion to the novel when the Lockwoods & the Hunters get their just desserts.
I loved everything about this book. The first sentences set the tone for the relationship between the two families. “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up. There was always so much of it during Christmas week, thought Mrs Lockwood with a sense of repletion.” Mrs Lockwood is skewered in those few sentences – her condescension, her canny thrift, her self-satisfaction in her own charity. Who are these Hunters who are to be condescended to? Immediately the reader wants to know & the New Year’s Eve party is so awful that we can’t wait to discover how the Hunters (whose side we’re immediately on) found themselves in such a position. We know from the beginning that Mr Lockwood has indulged in a shady bit of subterfuge to get hold of a paddock adjoining the Hunter’s house that he has always coveted. Part of the reason why we race through the novel is to see just how that dishonesty will be revealed & in what circumstances. Along the way though, we lose sight of it because we’re so involved in Thea’s romance with a young man in Villeneuve, a provincial French town where manners haven’t changed since the 19th century; Martin being taken up by the Lockwoods as a presentable young man to squire the girls around & then secretly falling in love with the youngest daughter, Clare; Molly blossoming when she finds work that suits her; Angela Harvey, a friend of the Lockwoods, defying convention by planning a career on the stage.
Thank goodness Persephone Books have reprinted nearly all Whipple’s novels & short stories. The rediscovery of Dorothy Whipple is emblematic of everything that Nicola Beauman has tried to do since Persephone was founded in 1999. Whipple’s Someone at a Distance was one of the first three Persephones & I can still remember the sheer joy I felt when I realised that there were authors like Whipple, Susan Glaspell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher & Marghanita Laski that I had never heard of but could now read. The beauty of the books as objects just added to my excitement. Harriet Evans’ Preface to this edition of Because of the Lockwoods is a passionate rallying cry for Dorothy Whipple & her place in 20th century fiction. Evans wants Whipple to be up there with Barbara Pym & Georgette Heyer as rediscovered & reclaimed authors now taken seriously by critics as well as fans. The same Preface could be written for all the authors I mentioned above & many others who have been reprinted by Persephone to the delight of lovers of absorbing novels, short stories, memoirs & diaries. I’m so pleased that this was the first book I finished this year. It’s a wonderful start to my year of reading from my tbr shelves & getting back to the books, the authors & the imprints that I’ve neglected over the past few years.