Recent Reads – Dorothy Whipple and Julian Maclaren-Ross

Brief thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both from the 20th century.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)

Sometimes a big fat Persephone just does the trick, and Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks proved no exception to the rule. A thoroughly enjoyable family saga with clear feminist overtones, spanning the period from 1910 to the mid-1920s.

The novel focus on the Ashton family – in particular, the grandmother, Louisa (who lives at Greenbanks), and her granddaughter, Rachel. The Ashtons are comfortably off – upper middle class by society’s standards – and traditional in terms of behaviour. In a sense, much of the narrative traces Rachel’s childhood, highlighting her growing independence in light of her father’s archaic views. While Ambrose is willing to send his sons to public school, he sees no reason to honour the same commitment to Rachel, such is the folly of educating women for fear they might prove troublesome.

Ambrose intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. 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. (p. 137)

Most of the men in this novel are horrendous, from the dictatorial Ambrose (Rachel’s father) to the philandering Robert (Louisa’s husband) to the weak-willed Mr Northcote (the local Vicar) – I could go on. By contrast, Whipple’s women are more considered creatures, increasingly aware that they must forge their own paths in life in spite of the men who surround them. There are hints too of the differences between the generations, each demonstrating increasingly progressive attitudes to marriage, class, education and independence than the one before. While Louisa is somewhat ashamed of the breakdown of her daughter Laura’s marriage, Laura herself seems unperturbed, determined as she is to escape a miserable relationship for one based on love.

Louisa winced at the prospect of more talk; she blamed Laura and was angry with her; then she became apprehensive for her because she was leaving the ‘safe’ life; then, watching Laura flying about her packing with a happy face, she marvelled that nothing was ever as you expected it to be. Leaving a husband should surely be a momentous, dramatic affair, yet here was Laura behaving as if she did it every day. (p. 190)

Over the course of the novel, the narrative touches on many issues and developments including bullying, infidelity, authoritarianism and social rejection. Dorothy Whipple may not be the flashiest or most literary of writers, but her insights into women’s lives are always absorbing. Overall, Greenbanks seems a much better novel than The Priory, which I read last year – almost certainly more focused in its storytelling while still conveying more than enough character development to sustain interest. Moreover, Greenbanks doesn’t go for the obvious tidy ending, for one of the main characters at least. Definitely recommended for fans of middlebrow fiction from the early-mid 20th century.

Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing by Julian Maclaren-Ross (collection 2005, individual pieces 1938-1964)

I thoroughly enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection of writing by the British author, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the man who served as inspiration for the idiosyncratic X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time.

Bitten by the Tarantula comprises six sections spanning the titular novella, short fiction, unfinished long fiction, essays on the cinema, essays on literature/book reviews, and literary parodies. While a little uneven in parts, the volume as a whole demonstrates JMR’s breadth and versatility, skilfully moving from fiction to non-fiction and back again as the sections go by.

There’s plenty of impressive stuff here from the Waugh-like titular novella with its themes of debauchery and self-destruction to the affectionate literary spoofs with their nods to Patrick Hamilton, P.G. Wodehouse and other leading writers of the day.

Much of the short fiction is very interesting too, albeit a little mixed, rooted as it is in London’s Fitzrovia and the corresponding milieu. There are hints here of the greatness to come in JMR’s 1947 novel, Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore. Other pieces in this section are concerned with the war – minor comic gems on the bureaucratic frustrations of army life in WW2.

With the unfinished long fiction, we see Maclaren-Ross spreading his wings a little, trying out one or two different genres or styles for size. The Dark Diceman has the genesis of a compelling thriller, populated by a web of characters interconnected by the effects of crime. While these pieces are most definitely in their infancy, it’s fascinating to speculate as to how they might have turned out, particularly if given the right development and support.

However, it is the essays on cinema, authors and other literary topics that really shine for me – the author’s critiques on American film noir, British features, and the world of Alfred Hitchcock are probably worth the entry price alone. JMR was a big fan of Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura (adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel of the same name), favouring it over the Billy Wilder’s much-feted Double Indemnity, another leading film from 1944.

Personally I preferred Laura by far. The dialogue was the most subtle and scintillating I have heard on a soundtrack for years; for once the script-writers had improved considerably on the novelist’s conception; from the first fade-in – the darkened screen and the sad impressive interior monologue – to the last scenes full of terrific suspense – Laura turning out light after light, locking herself in with the murderer when she believes she is alone in the flat; the murderer screwing his face up with a shudder of revulsion as he loads the shotgun […].(p. 248)

I know I’ve only skimmed the surface of this thoroughly absorbing book, but hopefully this given you a brief taster of what it contains. In summary, this is a fascinating selection of writing from a much-underrated author. One for lovers of film noir, British fiction and the seedy London milieu.

Greenbanks is published by Persephone Books, Bitten by the Tarantula by Black Spring Press; personal copies.

29 thoughts on “Recent Reads – Dorothy Whipple and Julian Maclaren-Ross

  1. Brian Joseph

    These sound like a couple of very good books. Greenbanks seems particularly interesting. Men behaving badly is a fairly common theme in literature. It certainly can make for a good book. Contrasting the attitudes and behaviors of different generations is something else that can enhance a book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it brought home to me just how difficult life was for many women back in the 1910s and ’20s, how narrow their options were etc. Literature can give us these insights, hopefully reminding us of how much has changed (even if there still seems to be some way to go in certain quarters).

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Oooh, lovely pairing. I adored Of Love and Hunger too, and I actually have a copy of this collection which I picked up cheaply somewhere – so yay! I’ll have to try to explore it soon. X. Trapnel was one of my favourite parts of “Dance…”!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, same here. I loved X Trapnel (or Trappy as he was affectionately called). Definitely one of the highlights of the Dance, for sure. I think you’ll enjoy the Tarantula collection. It’s suitably idiosyncratic and eclectic, but that’s all part of its charm!

      Reply
  3. fswolfe

    Great post! I didn’t know about X. Trapnel’s source (always sort of suspected the name was an anagram), even though I love Dance to the Music of Time. “Greenbanks” sounds like a perfect book for February. (It’s a balmy 20 degrees here right now.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d heard about the origins of Trappy’s character before starting the Dance, so I guess I read it with JMR firmly in mind. The myriad of detail Powell brought to that sequence of books was amazing. It really gave a clear sense of each character, not only their clothes and physical appearance but the way they moved too. Very impressive stuff. (Oh, and I envy you with your balmy 20 degrees; it’s been very nippy over here as we’ve had the first proper frosts of the year!)

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I loved Greenbanks, Louisa is such a fabulous character, and I agree the men were awful. There are other awful men in some other Whipple novels too.
    Julian Maclaren-Ross is a new name to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She does an interesting line in horrendous men, don’t you think? What’s particularly interesting here is how they fail these women in very different ways – some (such as Ambrose) are controlling and dictatorial, while others (such as the vicar) are weak-willed and foolish. I think she brings this out very well.

      Reply
  5. Caroline

    I have t read either of these too but have books of both. I particularly like what you write about Maclaren-Ross’ essays on cinema and film noir. I also love Laura. The movie possibly more than the book. I read it right after Dorothy Hughues. The comparison wasn’t in its favour.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, same here! I was disappointed by Caspary’s book, which I came to long after I’d first see the film adaptation. Something about the structure of novel didn’t work for me, although my memories of it are a little sketchy now. As for Bitten by the Tarantula, I think you’ll enjoy it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the kind of book that’s great for dipping into every now and again. The film criticism pieces are especially fascinating. I’m not sure I agree that Laura is a better film than Double indemnity, but JMR certainly makes a compelling case for it!

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        No, no, I meant the film Laura is better than the book. I haven’t seen Double Indemnity. I didn’t like the book’s structure. But my memories too are sketchy by now.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I got that. Sorry if my reply wasn’t clear. I too preferred Laura the film over Laura the book. That said Wilder’s Double Indemnity is one of my all-time films, so I’m not quite with JMR in his preference for the Preminger!

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Oh, it’s definitely worth it. There’s a great shot of Barbara Stanwyck walking down a staircase towards the start of the film. It’s quite the entrance!

              Reply
      2. gertloveday

        Have you read Caspary’s autobiography The Secrets of Grown -Ups? I have had it for quite a while on the recommendation of someone on the lit blogging scene, but not yet read.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No, I haven’t. I would like to read a few more memoirs or biographies at some point but probably not Caspary’s. There are other writers of more interest to me at the moment – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates and Penelope Fitzgerald to name but a few!

          Reply
  6. Radz Pandit

    Like you, I loved Of Love and Hunger when I read it all those years ago. It remains one of my favourite novels ever! I hope to read some Whipple this year, the only one I have with me is The Priory.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Whipple. She’s not in the same league as Elizabeth Taylor or Mollie Panter-Downes, but her insights into women’s lives are interesting nonetheless.

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    These sound really interesting reads and I’d not heard of them so thank you Jacqui :-)

    Greenbanks is very tempting because I really liked Someone at a Distance and I’d like to explore Whipple further.

    Do you think its better to read Powell before Maclaren-Ross? At some point I really must get to A Dance… so this may be an extra incentive!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t think it’s necessary to read Anthony Powell before Maclaren-Ross. Either way round would be fine. I started with Love and Hunger which worked very well as a standalone. Very much in the mould of Patrick Hamilton if that helps. :)

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    I very much liked the Dorothy Whipple I read (High Wages). I am not sure I will get to another, but based on the one I can appreciate your comment concerning her “absorbing insights into women’s lives.” High Wages helped me see some of the limitations of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale. Compared to Whipple, he dresses his female characters as opposed to really entering into their day-to-day lives.

    Okay, that’s the second of your posts on Maclaren-Ross that has piqued my interest. Consider me bitten.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting about Arnold Bennett. I’ve only read his Grand Babylon Hotel, which I enjoyed for its sense of adventure and playfulness. The characters themselves have faded though, possibly more so than I might have expected…

      Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    Are the men simply unsympathetic in the Whipple, or are they weakly written? It’s very common to see weakly written women in books by men, the other way round not so often.

    I have to admit despite my equal love to yours of his Of Love and Hunger, I had planned to pass on this. I tend to think that incomplete works should be left in dead writers’ desk drawers where they left them. The essays though on film noir and Hitchcock make it rather a must have.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re relatively well written, if a little cliched or stereotypical at times – the dictatorial father, the unfaithful husband etc. The vicar is a little more unusual though, more complex perhaps. I think Whipple understands character pretty well even if her novels aren’t quite as literary or nuanced as Elizabeth Taylor’s.

      As for the Maclaren-Ross it is rather uneven but that’s all part of its charm. The film pieces are fascinating though, very erudite and well argued. He would have made a great columnist!

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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