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Dorothy Whipple and the beauty of books

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Written by
Dr Cynthia Johnston

Dr Cynthia Johnston, lecturer in the history of the book and communication at the Institute of English Studies, explains how her love of rare books led to her discovering "forgotten" author Dorothy Whipple.

Lecturer in the History of the Book and Communication Dr Cynthia Johnston

Books have always been objects of beauty to me. Not only their content, but also their form, their design - so perfect it has hardly changed in 500 years. Books are in my blood: growing up in Philadelphia, my mother sold books at Snellenburg’s, a middle-class department store in downtown Philly; the ‘Thrifty Store for Thrifty People’. My father was also a modest book collector, and his engagement gift to mom was a 15th century book published in London. That’s just one of the reasons I love lecturing in the history of the book here at The Institute of English Studies (IES) – it’s close to all the rare bookshops!

Even in our digital age, rare books are much in demand. Perhaps this is because they provide a physical and spiritual link to the past. The IES works closely with rare book dealers to help promote new knowledge of old books. That’s why I’m so excited to have helped organise an exhibition that celebrates the life and works of the proto-feminist author, Dorothy Whipple (1893 – 1966), whose works have been brought back into print by Persephone Books.

I first came across Whipple’s immensely readable realist fiction when browsing the archive of the Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council Library and Information Centre in Blackburn, Lancashire, where she was born and raised. The author of eight best-selling novels, memoirs and collections of short stories, Dorothy was an acclaimed author in her lifetime. Indeed, two of her novels were adapted for the screen and the writer JB Priestley described her as the "Jane Austen of the 20th Century." Whipple’s works fell out of fashion after the war and even the editors of Virago Press rejected her novels, specifying a so-called “Whipple Line”, below which manuscripts would be automatically rejected.

In recent years, however, thanks to Persephone Books, there has been a resurgence of interest in this great chronicler of Northern lives between the wars. For this much credit must go to Dorothy’s niece, Judy Eldergill, to whom the author left the rights to all her books. Judy owns first editions of all her aunt’s books, complete with dust jackets – this makes them incredibly rare, because when books were disseminated through lending libraries, they often removed the jackets. Maggs Bros, the rare bookseller with whom we have such a productive relationship and who are hosting this exhibition, had never seen first edition copies of Dorothy’s first novel complete with dust jacket. 

Here I must pay tribute to Maggs Bros, who have been incredibly supportive, not only with regards to this exhibition, but also in supporting the University and students. Maggs Bros has recently been added to London Higher’s Civic Map, which identifies “hot spots” of civic engagement across the capital. The IES places the utmost importance on its relationships with rare booksellers in London which, with New York, is one of the most important centres for the trade worldwide.

Thanks to Judy Eldergill, who also contributed some of her aunt’s early letters from her publishers, reviews and archival photographs, this exhibition provides a complete trajectory of Dorothy Whipple’s publishing life. I would invite anyone with a keen interest in the rare book trade, mid-century fiction and the history of publishing to attend this wonderful exhibition. Not only to learn more about this remarkable author, but also the exciting world of rare books.

“The Whipple Line An exhibition celebrating the life and works of Dorothy Whipple” runs until 10 October at Maggs Bros, 48 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DR. Entry is free. Please ring the doorbell for entry.