By Emily January Petersen, author of what is still one of my most popular posts, the Olive Kitteridge review.
One of my guilty pleasures is reading chick lit. Although I consider myself a serious student of literature, I have read all of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, various other chick lit books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Something Borrowed and Something Blue by Emily Giffin. While I’m confessing my literary sins, I may as well admit to having read a few of the Twilight books, although I cannot say that I enjoyed them much.
I read these books when I think nobody is watching or when I just need a break from Thomas Hardy’s melodrama or William Faulkner’s run-on sentences and unclear pronoun references. Despite my enjoyment of this chick lit, I can’t say that I have gained much from have read these books. However, there are some books in this genre from an earlier era that do warrant our notice.
British author Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966), who produced what scholars call the woman’s novel, gave us a brand of chick lit that does not make one feel so guilty while reading. I have yet to put a false cover over any of them. This may be due to the fact that nobody knows that these novels can be classified as chick lit or is aware of the author, who has been largely forgotten. In her work, we can find soap-opera-like happenings, with marriages passionately dissolved and lovers fleeing to New York and Paris. But, we can also find profound statements about marriage, home, family, war, motherhood, and even feminism.
Whipple published eighteen books that often met praise in book reviews. J. B. Priestley, the well-known British novelist and dramatist, described Whipple “as the 20th century’s Jane Austen” (Cooper 16). She began life as Dorothy Stirrup and had a happy childhood in Blackburn, England.
Her friend, George Owen, died during the first week of World War I, and in 1917 she married widower Henry Whipple for whom she worked as a secretary. She is a neglected author, but she enjoyed success with her nine novels at the time of their publication. Many of her books “were Book Society Choices or Recommendations and two of them, They Knew Mr. Knight (1934) and They Were Sisters (1943), were made into films” (Persephone).
Her novels include Young Anne (1927), High Wages (1932), Greenbanks (1932), They Knew Mr. Knight (1934), The Priory (1939), They Were Sisters (1943), Because of the Lockwoods (1949), Every Good Deed (1950), and Someone at a Distance (1953). Many of these have been reprinted during the last few years by Persephone Books, a London-based publisher interested in reviving forgotten British and American women’s literature. Nicola Beauman, the owner of Persephone Books and author of A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39, calls Whipple “an author who wrote very simply and sparely as well as beautifully and compellingly” (Tyrell 1).
Whipple often wrote about women who returned to their husbands no matter the cost, yet the women in The Priory and Someone at a Distance prove their strength and courage to stand against patriarchal oppression by entering the workforce and rearing children alone before their wayward husbands return.
Such a conflicting message may stem from the fact that Whipple lived and wrote in a time when revolutionary ideas about women were not yet completely available to her. However, she helps to promote the beginnings of such radical ideas by giving her heroines the strength to take care of themselves when the men are not there to do so.
I own five of Whipple’s novels and her autobiography The Other Day. I have enjoyed reading six of her novels, and I hope to get my hands on the rest. I cannot name a favorite of those I have read. However, Remember the Lockwoods seems to stand out because it strays slightly from her early feminist themes and gives us a profound lesson about revenge: two wrongs do not make a right. The problems that revenge cause are more damaging than the vindication one may feel momentarily after punishing an enemy. These are the types of lessons I have learned from the chick lit of the 1940s. Once rejected as low brow and forgotten, these novels deserve a place on our bookshelves. Whether or not you place them with the literary greats or next to The Nanny Diaries is up to you.
About the author:
You can visit Emily at her blog, where she writes about books, life, and more, although there’s not much more than books and life, I suppose.
Cooper, Leonie. “Books Lost and Found: Once Dismissed For Their Bourgeois Domesticity, The 20th-Century Female Writers Championed by Persephone Are Now Enjoying Stealth Success.” Guardian 8 Feb. 2008: 16.
Persephonebooks.co.uk. 2009. Persephone Books. Web. 2 Mar. 2010.
Tyrell, Rebecca. “‘I Am Doing It For the Books.’” Financial Times 17 May 2008: 1.