The Persephone Book of Short Stories: A Lovely Time by Dorothy Whipple

Having read Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages a few years back, I am not a stranger to her writing. Persephone has republished eight of her books, and her biography at the back of the book says nine of her novels, including Someone at a Distance, were very successful during her time.

A Lovely Time written in 1933 is a story about Alice, a girl from Ilkeston. She has moved to London recently for work and lives at a boarding house. From the very beginning, we can see her attempts to fit in – she would spell her name ‘Alys’ and pronounce it to rhyme with ‘knees’. Yet, despite all that, it does not seem like she has made any friends. Life in London is expensive than she had previously imagined, but how can one make friends by staying in every day?

Her luck seems to have turned around when Shelia, her flatmate asks Alice to join her with two men to go for dinner and then go dancing at a night club. It is obvious that Alice was not her first choice, but it does not matter for Alice is glad to be invited anyway.

Oh, London life had begun! She had been lovely, she had been dull, she had been cold and felt the food at Vale House inadequate, but now the lights had gone up, the fun, the excitement, the experience she had come for were going to begin!

With much enthusiasm, Alice pulls out her new strawberry pink artificial satin cloak which she never had the chance to wear before. After styling her hair Eton Crop, using the “Stickit” borrowed from Shandon (another flatmate), Alice and Shelia venture into the night, even though it is plain clear that Shelia is not satisfied by Alice’s looks.

On the way to the restaurant, Alice compares how different Ilkeston is from London. In Ilkeston, if you go out at seven thirty in an evening dress everyone will stare at you. No such rudeness in London! The restaurant, despite being hot and funny looking, does excite Alice. But the night does not go as planned when Alice’s hair gets undone without her knowledge, causing amusement to the rest of the diners and her date, a writer who is dismissive of her. To make matters worse, when Alice’s date gets cut short after dinner, Shelia and Shelia’s date decide to go ahead dancing without her, possibly because they are embarrassed by Alice. The story ends when disheartened Alice returns to the boarding house and composes a letter to Lucy at home, writing that she went out for dinner and “had a lovely time.”

Reading A Lovely Time hit close to home for me. Although I also live in a foreign land now I am fortunate enough that I grew up watching American television. The cultural differences between Sri Lanka and America are so stark that I feel if not for that exposure, I would have felt lost when I came here. But for people like Alice, who have no prior knowledge, it can not be easy. When you are not accustomed to something, it is easy to put the wrong foot forward, and although I hate to admit it there will always be people who will judge you for it and make you feel inadequate. For some of us, it is through stories like these we get to see the other side – how lonely it must feel to go somewhere else and start a new life –  and Dorothy Whipple does a good job getting that idea across.