In conjunction with the Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair in September 2022, Maggs Bros. Ltd in London showcased an exhibition called “The Whipple Line,” celebrating the life and works of Dorothy Whipple. Whipple was an English author of popular fiction between World War I and World War II. Her works waned in popularity for decades before being rediscovered and reprinted by Persephone Books in the 2000s.
Dorothy Whipple was born Dorothy Stirrup on February 26th, 1893, in Blackburn, Lancashire. At the time of her birth, Blackburn was a mill town, as it had been since the 13th century. One of many children of a local architect, she was raised in a solidly middle-class house with her mother, Ada, her father and brothers, her kindly grandmother, and servant Kate. Her childhood, while described by herself as happy in her memoir The Other Day: An Autobiography (1930), did include quiet tragedies, such as the death of her baby sister.
Little biographical information is available regarding Whipple aside from what she left in her papers and memoirs. Her personal diaries were disposed of after her death but she left behind a clean and carefully curated archive that portrays the life of a serious author. Most sources have the same generic and hard-to-follow statement about her private life: “Her close friend George Owen having been killed in the first week of the war, she worked for three years as the secretary to Henry Whipple, a widowed educational administrator 24 years her senior. She married him in 1917.” This sentence seems to tie “her friend’s” death with her working as a secretary. A common understanding is that she had a romantic relationship with George and was left heartbroken at his death. Three years after his death, she married Henry Whipple. The Whipples had no children and lived mainly in Nottingham, another industrial city in the middle of England. Her husband was the Director of Education, and Whipple was often frustrated about her role as the wife that didn’t allow her the freedom a man would have with a successful writing career. Expected to make biscuits and tea cakes when people dropped in, Whipple’s life as a wife, aunt, sister, and daughter was kept distinct from her life as an author. After the death of her husband in 1958, she returned to Blackburn and lived there until she died in 1966.
The Writing Life of Dorothy Whipple
Even with the societal restrictions she faced as a woman writing, Whipple began publishing stories at the age of 12, and before she was 18, had published 40 in local papers. She saved the clippings from all her stories, claiming her identity as an author very early on. Her debut novel, Young Anne, was published in 1927 when Whipple was thirty-four. The story of a young woman in love with a man named George but marrying someone else is reminiscent of Whipple’s life. Her second novel, High Wages, about a woman opening a dress shop, followed in 1930.
The 1940s and 1950s followed with more popular novels, novellas, and books of stories: After Tea, and Other Stories (1942), They were Sisters (1943), Every Good Deed (1946), Because of the Lockwoods (1949), Someone At A Distance (1953) and Wednesday and Other Stories (1961). Almost all her novels were Book Society Choices or Recommendations, and two of them, They Knew Mr. Knight (1934), and They Were Sisters (1943), were made into films. She also published two memoirs, The Other Day: An Autobiography (1950) (previously out of print and hard to find, although Persephone has just republished The Other Day (October 2022), and Random Commentary: Books and Journals Kept from 1925 Onwards (1966, reprinted in 2020 by Persephone Books).
In her later years, she published multiple children’s books: Tale of Very Little Tortoise (1962), The Smallest Tortoise of All (1964), Little Hedgehog (1965), and Mrs. Puss and That Kitten (1967).
Whipple’s craft is characterized by her straightforward language, eye for detail, and character-driven portrayals of domestic life. She said of her writing, “I don’t like having to concoct plots, I like doing people.”
Among the most popular of her novels, Someone At A Distance (1953), tells of a family that falls into chaos when the father leaves for a French woman. Nina Bawden writes in the preface of the 1999 Persephone Books edition of the novel it is “a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage.” They Were Sisters (1943) is about three sisters who marry very different men, taking their lives on vastly different paths. Elizabeth Day called it “a powerful portrayal of sisterly relationships and an emotionally coercive marriage.” They Were Sisters was the fourth Whipple book republished by Persephone Books.
After the 1950s, tastes in publishing changed. Whipple’s niece, Judith Eldergill, notes that “people wanted passion and action,” and Whipple’s books fell out of favor.
Rescuing Whipple’s Work from Obscurity
In 1983, British biographer and journalist Nicola Beauman published A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939. Portraying middle-class women in the interwar period, Beauman realized many of the women writers, including Dorothy Whipple, were out of print. She went on to establish Persephone Books, an English publisher, and bookseller who reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction, primarily by women writers of the mid-twentieth century. They have championed the work of Dorothy Whipple since they were established in 1999, republishing eleven other Whipple titles. In 2007 they published The Closed Door and Other Stories, ten short stories selected from the three volumes of stories that Whipple published in her lifetime. Today, Dorothy Whipple is Persephone Books’ bestselling author.
Dr. Cynthia Johnston, who has been teaching the history of the book since 2010, is partially responsible for keeping the interest in Whipple’s work alive. Johnston is the director of the MA/MRes in the History of the Book and Lecturer in the History of the Book and Communication at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. While researching the James Dunn Collection at the Blackburn with Darwen Library and Information Service, she stumbled upon Whipple’s archives, temporarily housed in wicker baskets on the floor. Later, at a book club organized by young women working in rare books, Johnston recommended they read Greenbanks, Whipple’s third novel. Of the book, novelist Hugh Walpole wrote in Book Society News: “I believe Greenbanks will be remembered for a long time to come because of the characters of two people in it, the grandmother Louisa and the granddaughter Rachel. In them, Dorothy Whipple has performed splendidly the great job of the novelist, which is to increase for us infinitely the population of the living world. Every character in this quiet book is alive.” One of the book group organizers, Bonny Beaumont, manager of Maggs Mayfair and part of the Modern Department at Maggs Bros Rare Books & Manuscripts, became enamored with Whipple’s work, and by 2020 they had the idea for an exhibition. Fellow book club members Jessica Starr of Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers, Emma Walshe of Peter Harrington Rare Books and Alice Rowell and Euphemia Franklin of Maggs Bros. Ltd. co-curated the exhibition with Beaumont and Johnston.
The Maggs Bros. Ltd exhibition, “The Whipple Line,” which ran from September 15th to October 10th, 2022, included items Whipple collected over the years and left in the care of her niece and literary heir, Judith Eldergill. This collection included letters from publishers, film reviews from movies made from her novels, fan letters, working notebooks, and first drafts. It also had scarce first-edition copies of her eight novels. While her books were widely read throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, they were not considered collectible, so not many of the novels were saved in fine first-edition condition. The popularity of the books in lending library collections led to most being unjacketed and read ‘to death.’
At Virago Books, a feminist publishing company started in 1973 in the UK, founder Carmen Callil states, “We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.'”
As the novelist Hugh Walpole explained: “To put it plainly, in Dorothy Whipple’s picture of a quite ordinary family before and after the war there is some of the best creation of living men and women that we have had for a number of years in the English novel. She is a novelist of true importance.”
Thankfully her work is being rescued from oblivion by people like Beauman, Johnston, and Beaumont today, highlighting the importance of book collecting and preservation for future generations.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.