‘Random Commentary’ by Dorothy Whipple and published by @persephonebooks is a series of extracts from Whipple’s personal diaries, spanning the period 1925-1945 and this encompassing a major swathe of her active writing life. During this particular period she wrote six novels, one autobiographical novel about her childhood and several short stories.
The excerpts were handpicked by Whipple herself in 1965. They were a series of entries from personal diaries that Whipple deemed important and that she typed out herself. The lack of chronological information makes these entries slightly difficult to follow with regards to exact dates but the Publisher’s Note at the beginning of the book, makes reference to Whipple’s bibliography during this period and the reader can roughly gauge the time regarding which the writer refers to. Overall, this chronological information omission does not take away from the reader’s enjoyment of reading the diary.
Information about book writing, correspondence with publishers, literary events merge seamlessly with more domestic concerns – the dusting, the cooking, the ups and downs of finding and keeping domestic help. In this way one can really form an idea of the real life of this very down to earth woman who had to fit in time for her writing in between her domestic duties.
“I am up in the 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 see M.E, to go to the office to see Miss G.”
Living with her husband Henry, an educational administrator, Dorothy Whipple often accompanied her husband on his travels for conferences. One can glean that Whipple gained immense enjoyment from a change of scenery, acutely observing the people and places around her, noting down their habits and idiosyncrasies – gathering food for her writing. On one particular occasion, Whipple visits a popular London restaurant and the group of people at an adjacent table become the heart and soul of her next short story.
“London. We went to Bertorelli’s… The other girl was a complete contrast to Alice, a full-blown rose indeed, with peroxided curls and wet lips and a generous bosom displayed in a tight emerald green dress. She called her young man ‘darling’ and ate the middle of his bread … I wrote this as a short story: A Lovely Time.
What I found most valuable about reading ‘Random Commentary’ was the intimate knowledge of the writing process of each of Whipple’s books, her thoughts and often despair in penning her stories, her internal struggles, the ever-present feeling of doubt and dubiousness at the worthiness of a manuscript for publication – the feeling of hope and anticipation accompanying the postage of a manuscript to the publisher – the euphoria of a publisher’s acceptance, positive response and also the heart ache over rejection. All these feelings are beautifully conveyed with the reader making us sympathetic to the creative angst of the writer.
Fortunately for Whipple she enjoyed immense popularity as a writer while she was living. Many of her books were the ‘Choice of the Book Club’ or on best seller lists. Critics were very kind. JB Priestley, a close friend was a great cheerleader and Whipple enjoyed good relationships with most of her publishers. Her books were translated into different languages, and often the American rights to her books were much sought after.
“They Knew Mr. Knight reaches 10,000 mark, and heads list of bestsellers in John O’London. It is also among the bestsellers in the Autumn number of ‘The Author’. It is listed among the best-sellers in The Times.”
Insights into literary parties and meeting notable writers of the time there, are also most interesting to the reader. Names are dropped most casually and provide a great thrill. At a party given by publisher Jock Murray to celebrate the publisher’s marriage and publication of ‘The Priory’,
The first person that Whipple sees is George Bernard Shaw, ‘pink and white face almost lost in snow white whiskers’. At another party she encounters Dorothy L. Sayers. It must have been an incredible time to have been part of the greater literary scene. E. M. Delafield, such a favourite author of mine, is mentioned to have praised ‘The Priory’ in ‘Provincial Lady in Wartime’. If you are, like me, an avid fan of the literature and authors of the interwar period, then ‘Random Commentary’ will provide you with infinite nuggets of joy – in the shape of literary figures, encounters with them and discourse with notable publishers.
From her diaries, it is quite evident that Whipple enjoyed close relationships with family. She had a very strong, loving relationship with her husband Henry and they seem to have led a very contented life with their beloved dog, in between their two homes in Nottingham and in the country at Newstead. Whipple’s Mother and brothers crop up frequently on the pages of ‘Random Commentary’ – as does her sister. Whipple worshipped her sister’s daughter Griselda and her name is frequently mentioned in her diaries.
During the course of these diaries the Second World War raged and the build up, anxiety and dread about impending war is very much evident to the reader. Whipple describes her inability to write in the face of the War.
“I can’t write. Fiction seems so trivial. Fact is too terrible.”
Despite this, Whipple did indeed plow on with her, to my mind, most dramatic and angst-filled novel ‘’They Were Sisters’. One can’t help but feel that some of the angst, tragedy and frustration of the War are transmitted to its pages, so that a heightened sense of calamity is felt when reading this story.
There’s lots to read and re-read and dissect amongst the pages of ‘Random Commentary’. Whipple lived a life rich in experience and the interest and curiosity she felt about people, their moods and motivations inundate her fiction, as well as this most interesting of personal diaries. Definitely, a must-read for any ardent Whipple fan.
I received this Press copy of ‘Random Commentary’ as a gift from Persephone Books but as always, all opinions are my own.