All the wonderful Persephone books I hauled last December were gathering dust on my bookshelf. They were too pretty and too precious to read. I kept saving them because I ask you: what will I do when I run out of Persephones? London is two expensive flights away and I like to have at least one unread Persephone as back-up for when I want to read something really special. So why the sudden madness at picking one up, you ask? Well, I had (whispers) five unloved Persephones looming reproachfully at me. I’m really not all that intrepid.
For those unfamiliar with Persephone Books and what they do: they are a London-based small press that “reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.” What I love most about Persephone, other than my personal predilection for lady writers, is that their titles “are neither too literary nor too commercial,” or in the derogatory words of a literary figure I can’t remember (Google isn’t helping either): “the lower end of quality writing.” I happen to love the description “lower end of quality writing.” It promises a bit of juicy trashiness to go with all the highbrow stuff. Of course I love depth and extraordinary writing in my books. But I also cannot abide books that forgo storytelling in favor of esoteric incomprehension. A link to Persephone Books’ website is provided here.
Dorothy Whipple is Persephone’s star author and by the first few pages of The Closed Door and Other Stories, I thought that this, this was the book I needed. Comfort reading, good storytelling. What more do you need? Well, a cup of milky tea, of course. Although you can see from the photo above that I used green tea as base rather than English breakfast. I know, I know. I blaspheme.
One word came to mind after reading the first paragraph: solid. Whipple’s writing probably didn’t win her any awards for stylistic flourish during her lifetime, but her approach feels dependable and substantial.
There’s wit in Whipple’s writing too, just like another, more famous Dorothy. But the stories in this collection are winks to Parker’s slaps. Dorothy Whipple was once described as the “Jane Austen of the 20th century” and I can see why. Whipple had a skillful touch with characterization. One paragraph is all you need to know about a character’s foibles and eccentricities.
There are ten stories collected in The Closed Door and Other Stories. Two number more than sixty pages and the rest are roughly around ten pages. The first story “The Closed Door” is the longest at seventy-five pages. It’s a simple story of an unwanted daughter living under her dreadful, tyrannical parents. It has shades of a sweet Cinderella story, complete with a knight in shining armor to the rescue. Although in a pleasant subversion, the knight is a lady. But “The Closed Door” is, at its heart, about good parenting vs. bad parenting and the types of children different approaches produce. It is also about how the effects of horrible parenting takes years and years to heal. There’s also a beautiful, enduring friendship between two women at its core – one that my modern eyes cannot help but suspect as something more.
However much I had been adoring The Closed Door and Other Stories, by the fifth story “Family Crisis,” I was beginning to notice a trend. Thematically, these stories were all about good’s comeuppance against the cruel, the snobbish, and the miserly. More Cinderella stories, really. I had been ready to dismiss The Closed Door as the perfect read when you’re having a shit day and need some comfort under blankets. But the stories fold into one another and if you are looking for layers and complexity, you won’t find it here.
The trajectory of my love affair with The Closed Door yo-yoed once again by the time I reached the seventh and eight stories “Wednesday” and “Summer Holiday” respectively. I had been wrong. Whipple’s range wasn’t limited to neat happy endings. She did sad and mournful in “Wednesday.” She worked with the fragility of childhood innocence in “Summer Holiday.” And in the final story “Cover” –a short but punchy and effective yarn, one of my favorites in the collection, she proved that she could do cruel and devastating. I was adoring The Closed Door all over again. I’ve got to question the editor’s choice of lumping all six happy and more comic stories together though. Tonally, I think The Closed Door would work better if the happy tales were interwoven with the sad, darker ones rather than presented as lump sums.
All the stories in The Closed Door are simple, domestic dramas. They deal exclusively with the home and the hearth. Those adrenaline-inclined and those who sneer at “middle-class problems” should best stay away. The “crisis” in “Family Crisis” involves a daughter’s ill-advised elopement ala Lydia Bennet; these are small catastrophes that won’t affect the world at large. Whipple dealt with the familiar. A good home, a happy family, leisure time, and a cup of tea – in these stories, those are the hallmarks of happiness. But it is to Whipple’s credit that homely troubles feel disastrous all the same.
Dorothy Whipple’s stories harken back to a none-too-distant past where a woman’s rash affair or infidelity would ruin her for the rest of her life. There’s was a strong gratefulness I felt when I was reading “Family Crisis” and “Wednesday.” Just thinking how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights gladdened me, until I wondered if it was all false optimism. Not every corner of the globe is forgiving towards a woman’s faults and mistakes.
The Closed Door and Other Stories was a wonderful read. It can be charming, it can be heartrending and it was lucky for me that I picked it up when I was a bit down so I got dosed by all the joyful endings first. But for a better reading experience, I recommend reading one story from the front then one story from the back and so on. I’m excited that I still have Someone at a Distance, considered Whipple’s best, to read. Although true to my penchant, I think it will be a long while until I pick up another Persephone from my shelf.