Friday, 2 May 2014

Every Good Deed - Dorothy Whipple

It wasn't until I listed Every Good Deed among my purchases at the Bookbarn that I realised how scarce it was - as a couple of commenters pointed out.  That made me feel duty-bound to read it asap, despite having only read some of the Persephone Whipples available (Someone at a Distance, They Knew Mr Knight, Greenbanks, High Wages, and The Closed Door - more than I'd thought, now I come to list them).  Well, judging by Persephone's love for Dorothy Whipple, I predict that Every Good Deed (1946) will one day join that number - but perhaps they needn't rush.  It was enjoyable and interesting, but it wasn't Whipple on top form...

They general idea is that a couple of oldish spinster sisters adopt a child from a local sort of orphanage, and all does not go well.  Susan and Emily Topham are shy, caring, worried about what society thinks of them, and above all not ready for a trickster.  Their cook (Cook, if you will) is a little more worldly-wise, but just barely.  Enter Gwen.

She steals, she talks back, she lies, she is (when a little older) no better than she ought to be.  She abuses their care and runs amok - and runs away.  She's not even an orphan; her wily mother uses the situation to exact cash from the Topham sisters.
There were hundreds of children who, in the same circumstances, would have responded to their care, would have loved them and been grateful; but by mischance they had hit upon Gwen.
That's Whipple's slightly half-hearted attempt to make sure we know Every Good Deed isn't supposed to be a universal cautionary tale.  The classism of the book did make me a little uneasy, and I'm not sure that sentence saved things...

There are a few more ins and outs in the narrative than this, but not many.  Although I enjoyed reading it, and Whipple is an expert at writing a very readable book, it did feel a lot like a short story which had got a bit long.  There is only one arc of the narrative - subplots not welcome - and the moments of crisis feel like the climaxes of a short story, not multifaceted moments in a novella.  Every Good Deed is only just over a hundred pages long, but I reckon it would have made more sense at, say, forty pages, in one of Whipple's short story collections.  An enjoyable enough read, but if you're struggling to find a copy anywhere... well, don't feel too distraught about it.

10 comments:

  1. Mmmmmmm - doesn't sound like an *essential* Whipple to be honest (mind you, I confess I still have to finish one of her books, so I'm not much of a judge!). Bearing in mind the glowing reviews I've read of her other works, I would say this one isn't worth spending a lot of time or money getting hold of...... :)

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    1. It's certainly not the place I'd point Whipple newbies - but I learnt on Facebook that it'll be published by Persephone in a couple of years, so might be worth that expenditure!

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  2. "(Cook, if you will)"--haha!

    I keep hearing Whipple's name everywhere (okay, my bookish version of everywhere), and I'm considering springing for one, The Priory. I wish I could just try one rather than having to commit it to my shelves!

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    1. I got The Priory for Christmas, my first Persephone Book, barely left the sofa until I finished it.

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    2. I still haven't read The Priory, although I am the proud possessor of a signed copy of it. Someone at a Distance remains my favourite.

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  3. Agree that she's not on top form here, but so rare - what a lucky find.

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    1. I guess it's a case of 'if you spend so much time in bookshops, you're bound to find things'!

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  4. I adore that cover. So trashy and sinister!

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  5. Interesting review, Simon! I'm reliably informed that Persephone will be bringing 'Every Good Deed' out in 2016, along with some other Dorothy Whipple short stories---in the meantime, they're publishing 'Because of the Lockwoods' in the autumn, which I thoroughly recommend.

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