Persephone books have been luring me with their siren song for some time. Their plush, classy, anonymous grey covers and beautiful individual endpapers (with matching bookmarks!) are startlingly enticing, even for a shameless judge of covers like myself. With various titles floating on my periphery for many years, the promise of cosy, quality writing from lesser known female authors has finally proved too tempting to resist. Enter Dorothy Whipple’s heartrending Because of the Lockwoods (big thanks go to Rachel at Book Snob and Thomas at Hogglestock for their ever-valuable recommendations).
BOTL explores the lives of two families; the Lockwoods and the Hunters, growing up alongside each other in a gritty Northern industrial town. Following the death of Mr Hunter, his wife and three children are forced to leave their comfortable family home for a less salubrious part of town. Ousted out of the cosseted social circles of her former neighbours, young Thea Hunter seethes with anger towards her pompous young Lockwood peers. Coupled with her mothers’ deference in all things important towards the devious Mr Lockwood, Thea’s frustration pushes her to escape her narrow existence, expanding her horizons to terrific effect. Will the pompous patronising Lockwoods ever get their comeuppance? Only Whipple can tell.
This human story of the almost overwhelmingly ‘ordinary’ injustices in life and how people strive to overcome such obstacles struck me more than I expected. Thea, our unwitting heroine, is very much a ‘real’ woman, so very flawed in her jealousies, passions, fatalism and untimely outbursts; a character to be frustrated by but who is all the more charming for her imperfections. The injustice of the unattractive, devious Lockwoods publicly lording it over a family less fortunate and, in the case of Mrs Hunter, far weaker than themselves, was almost too much to bear at times, making it all the easier to fly through this wonderful novel to its dramatic conclusion.
Choosing a bit of Whipple for my first Persephone read turned out to be a wise move. Not only is she their most published author (i.e. a safe bet) but her masterful management of her characters and cosy, gently progressing narrative made this an easy one to sink into. Thea’s flight to France gives us a welcome change of mood and scenery and allows, in her absence, peripheral characters such as neighbour and admirer Oliver Reade to transform himself from grade-a sleazeball to working-class hero. Mrs Hunter, on the other hand, I would have been quite glad to slap at times and I did find this novel, overall, difficult to place in time, something my hungry mind can’t help but find frustrating.
Perhaps the compelling characters drew me in, maybe it was the pleasing humdrum nature of the Hunters’ lives, or perhaps Whipple’s Northern setting spoke to my Mancunian soul. Whatever it was, I loved it, devouring this novel slowly in several sittings. More Whipple to warm me up please!