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Random Commentary

by Dorothy Whipple
Persephone book no:

138 139


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'Homeless in Wartime' from the WRVS (now RVS) Archive


160pp
ISBN 9781910263297

Random Commentary is a short volume which consists of extracts from the diaries and notebooks of our bestselling writer, Dorothy Whipple. It was compiled by her in 1965, in Blackburn, to which she had returned a few years before, after her husband’s death, and was published in early 1966, a few months before she died. So in some respects this is a tribute to a novelist’s life but because she chose the extracts (from 1925-45) herself it is, naturally – this is after all Dorothy Whipple – modest and self-deprecating but always extremely honest.

Yet this is a book which will only by enjoyed by someone who has already read at least some of the novels. So if there is anyone reading this who has not read any: remedy this situation immediately! The rest of us – the thousands and thousands of Persephone readers who love Dorothy Whipple (for example, The Priory and They Were Sisters have both sold c.17,000 copies and counting) – will be enchanted to read about this wonderful writer’s working life. Because this is very much a writer’s diary and may in a small way have been inspired by the 1953 publication of Leonard Woolf’s edition of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, A Writer’s Diary (now PB No. 98) which focuses on anything to do with the writing life and eschews gossip.

But for the Dorothy Whipple fan, as anyone who has ever read her instantly becomes, Random Commentary is both entertaining and fascinating. This is not just because of the details about how a writer functions, it is because Dorothy Whipple was (as her readers know) so witty, humane and knowing. One of her most admirable qualities is that she had no ‘side’ and to say that she was modest is a severe under-statement. This is why she never won any prizes, was not in dictionaries of literary figures, did not consort with contemporary writers (she couldn’t have imagined knowing Ivy Compton-Burnett or Elizabeth Taylor, who both adored her books) and never went to London to suck up to newspaper editors, reviewers and fellow authors. In essence she was terrible at self-promotion, and indeed she would not have known or recognised self-promotion as a phenomenon or in fact as an ideal.

However, her novels sold in their thousands and thousands. She worked incredibly hard, took pride in her work, and did care very much indeed about how her books were received. For example, in 1943 (it must have been July but there are no accurate dates so this is guesswork) she received a telegram about They Were Sisters: ‘“Congratulations. Book Society Choice November.” I have been excited many times in my life before, but I don’t think I was ever as excited as now… I rushed into the kitchen to Nelly, and sank into her chair and gave myself up to joyous realisation at this wonderful end to my book.’ These few sentences tell us so much. And it is particularly revealing that at a moment of great elation and excitement she goes and sits in the kitchen with their (beloved) cook.

Some readers will dislike its lack of accurate dating, but Random Commentary was compiled by Dorothy Whipple herself in 1965. She had kept intermittent diaries, few of which survive, and simply picked out what she thought readers would enjoy and did not care about detailed chronology. ‘We considered creating one, by dating some of the events. But none of these solutions seemed to respect her original concept and we did not think she would have liked any of them. So, in the end, we have reproduced Random Commentary as facsimile and merely provided the publication dates of her books to give some kind of chronological structure.’ We hope that this suffices for most of our readers. And of course we hope that they very much enjoy the book too.

 

Endpaper

A c.1936 screen-printed coarse 'crash' linen designed for Donald Bros., Dundee by Eva Croft (sister of Laura Knight).


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