This is my second book by Dorothy Whipple this year, and I’m trying to figure out where she has been all my life. Also, how does Whipple manage to make stories in which almost nothing happens, involving very mundane mid-twentieth century family concerns, so suspenseful?
The book begins with the Hunters and the Lockwoods as part of the same social circle and social class in the rather grim town of Aldworth, in the industrial north of England. I was reminded several times of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, in reading this book – I’ll follow up on this a bit later. The Hunters and the Lockwoods own large neighboring country homes on the outskirts of Aldworth, where they are the local gentry. Mr. Hunter is an architect, Mr. Lockwood does something in law/finance. In the first few pages, Mr. Hunter dies, leaving his wife and three children: Molly, Martin and Thea, basically destitute. Mr. & Mrs. Lockwood also have three children – daughters all – a set of twins named Bee and Muriel who are seemingly around Thea’s age, and Clare, who is younger.
And here the paths diverge.
There is a moment, very early in the book, where Mr. Lockwood engages in some very self-serving and unethical behavior, and basically converts a pretty large percentage of the very small estate left by Mr. Hunter to himself. This really sets the stage for the entire relationship between the Lockwoods and the Hunters, in which the Lockwoods pretend that they are doing the Hunters good turns by allowing them to associate with them, when what is really happening is that they are using and mistreating the Hunter family.
I became very, very frustrated with Mrs. Hunter during the course of this book. I struggle with weak, ineffectual characters, especially when those weak, ineffectual characters have children and need to buck up and get on with it. Mrs. Hunter was entirely incapable of bucking up and getting on with it, which meant that her children suffered quite a lot. She was perfectly willing to prostrate herself before the garish and rather vulgar Lockwoods, if it meant continuing to be recognized by them. In addition, she turned their finances over to Mr. Lockwood, who felt quite put upon, and this, as it turned out, was a really bad idea.
So, the Lockwoods essentially run their lives, but in ways which solely benefit the Lockwoods. When the oldest Hunter child, Molly, reaches the age of 15, Mrs. Lockwood farms her out to a family that needs a governess, in spite of the fact that Molly is shy, not particularly academic, and is a terrible governess. This goes on for years, making Molly miserable, as she is shunted from family to family, underpaid, by Mrs. Lockwood. Molly’s only real talent is baking – and she is quite accomplished. Mrs. Lockwood shows up for tea with Mrs. Hunter, and literally eats them out of house and home, completely blind to the fact that the Hunters are broke and she is eating their dinner.
Moving on to Martin, the middle Hunter child and the only son – Martin wants to be a doctor. When he reaches approximately 15, Mr. Lockwood bursts his dream and sends him out as a bank clerk. Now both Martin and Molly are miserable. It’s worth noting that, thus far in the book, none of the Hunters have an ounce of gumption, which they could sorely use. I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat, waiting and wanting desperately for someone to tell Mr. or Mrs. Lockwood, or their horrible twin daughters, to go fuck themselves. I mean, in very polite, 1949 language.
Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children, on the other hand is not so easily squashed. And this is really her story, although we don’t get to it until about 40%.
And then, Oliver Reade, a young upstart who is definitely not of the Hunter’s class, moves in next door. Like Mr. Lockwood, he is a managing sort with his fingers in many pies, which are becoming more lucrative every day. Unlike Mr. Lockwood, he is a very good and ethical person. He immediately falls for Thea, and Thea immediately dislikes him, which brings me back to the North and South reference from above. Oliver Reade, like John Thornton, is in trade. Thea, like Margaret Hale, is from the upper class, albeit one which has fallen on hard times. He is a great character and I fell for him immediately, mentally yelling at Thea to stop being such a brat and to pull her head out of her backside.
The idea that anyone could think that the Lockwoods were superior to Oliver Reade is preposterous and shows the rot endemic in any hereditary aristocracy or class system.
I’m going to stop here, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it to say, it is really satisfying. I can’t say that I absolutely loved the ending, which is why I knocked off that final half-star. It could have been perfect, but it wasn’t. I wanted just a bit more.