Young Anne by Persephone favourite Dorothy Whipple is one of the publishing house’s new titles for Spring 2018. First published in 1927, Young Anne is Whipple’s debut novel, and the final book of hers which Persephone will be printing, bringing as they have done all of her wonderful novels back into print.
Young Anne, which includes a lovely preface by Lucy Mangan, is a ‘quasi-autobiographical novel about a young girl’s journey to womanhood.’ Mangan addresses the double-edged sword which comes with the publication of the final Whipple novel; whilst thrilled that all of her fiction is now readily available for scores of new fans to discover, she writes that ‘to be reaching the end of her work entire feels positively injurious to health.’ Mangan explores the ways in which protagonist Anne’s life echoes that of Whipple’s, and the way in which, even as a debut novel, this has many of the qualities which can be found and admired in her later work: ‘… naturally her unmistakeable voice is already there.’ She goes on to write: ‘Whipple, from the off, keeps her ego and her insecurities in check. As in all her later, more experienced works, she is not a showman but a patient, disciplined archaeologist at a dig, gently but ceaselessly sweeping away layers of human conventionality and self-deception, and on down to deeper pretences to get at the stubborn, jagged, enduring truths about us all beneath.’
In Young Anne, Anne Pritchard, the youngest of three children and the only girl, is first introduced when she is a small child. Whipple’s description of her feels fresh and perceptive, and one is immediately captivated: ‘Anne at five was indescribably endearing. A small, sweet, wild-rose thing. Her hair came diffidently out in tendrils of gold, curling outwards and inwards, this way and that, trying to make a softer thing of the stern sailor cap that proclaimed itself “Indomitable” above her childish brow. Her folded mouth had, for the moment, the gravity of the very young.’ At this point in time, Anne is scolded rather regularly for small misdemeanours, such as for her ‘favourite occupation’ of sinking her teeth into the wood of the pews at church. Her only confidant comes in the form of the Pritchards’ housekeeper, Emily, whose tasks are many; they consist of ‘running the house, of keeping Gerald in his place, Anne out of scrapes, Philip from overeating, of coping with her mistress’s indifference, her master’s indigestion and his righteousness.’
From the outset, Anne feels so realistic, filled as she is with childish whims and ideas. Whipple pays so much attention to her sense of humour and imagination, which are always getting her into trouble with her father. In one memorable instance, Whipple recounts something which leads young Anne into disgrace: ‘Henry Pritchard was outraged. He was dumbfounded. The impertinence of the child to come in and laugh at his singing! To laugh at him!’ Anne’s response to this is as follows: ‘She knew what fathers were, and God and Henry Pritchard had much in common. They were everywhere at once, and all-powerful.’ The other characters portrayed in Anne’s world are, even when secondary figures, described with such vivacity and depth. Of Mildred, a spoilt playmate of Anne’s, Whipple writes that ‘she was a very correct young person. She even ate jelly with a fork at tea.’ Anne’s formidable Aunt Orchard is described as follows: she ‘did not hold for higher education for women, but she liked to destroy people’s pet hopes, or at least scratch them a little in passing.’
Whipple’s writing, as ever, is gloriously detailed. When, early in the book, Anne leaves home early in the morning to catch a silver fish at the local park, the following is described: ‘No one about. She had the world to herself, and the pink-and-white hawthorn blossom was thick on the trees and the laburnum dangled tassels of gold. Here was quiet pool under a tree. Just the place where a silver fish might be! She lay down on the grass and peered into the water. The ends of her hair slid into the pool, her breath ruffled its surface. What a strange was there under the water, green moss, spread in waving patterns, silver bubbles coming up from nowhere, and under the roots of the tree, dim caves…’.
Time passes rather quickly in Young Anne; our protagonist skips from young child to teen, and then to young adult, at the beginning of successive chapters. She is soon sent to a convent school, which allows her some semblance of freedom. After her first day, as she is walking home, ‘she had an exciting sense of having started a new life away from the paternal eye at last.’ The advent of the First World War then ensues, and both of Anne’s brothers are sent to the Front. When she goes to the local station near their Lancashire home to say goodbye, Whipple observes: ‘Anne waved them away, her difficult control terribly shaken by the wet faces of the women round her; mothers, sisters, sweethearts, who, like animals, would have hidden themselves when they were hurt, but were compelled to stand out on the crude, cruel railway station and expose their inmost souls.’
Young Anne is an accomplished debut, and as Mangan points out, Whipple’s wonderful writing and ‘unmistakeable voice’ are already prominent throughout. Young Anne is a heartfelt, searching, and introspective character study. Anne comes up against many hurdles in her life, and Whipple seems concerned, above all, with how she deals with, or overcomes, them. As all of Whipple’s later novels can contest, Young Anne is poignant and thoughtful, shrewd and intelligent. I became absorbed within the story immediately, and found the character arc which Whipple has so deftly crafted eminently believable. The human condition is centre stage here, and rightly so; Whipple has much to say about the difficulties of growing up, and so much compassion for its consequences.