Marjorie ‘Malachi’ Whitaker was a short story writer from Bradford. Described as Bradford’s Chekhov, Whitaker had all but been forgotten until the recent publication of 20 of her collected stories in The Journey Home and Other Stories. Journalist Valerie Waterhouse has also helped to uncover and reevaluate Whitaker’s work and life.
Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in 1895, Whitaker was the eight of eleven children. A voracious reader and prolific writer from a young age, Whitaker recalled that she would often deliberately get into trouble so she would be sent to her room where she could read in peace. At primary school, she was awarded scripture prizes, but her academic career was cut short at Belle Vue Girls’ Grammar School, which she hated. She left school at 13 and went to work for her father, who was a bookbinder.
Whitaker was a writer from a young age but, worried that everything she was writing had been written before, she would often burn all her work. When World War I broke out, Whitaker had her first flush of published success: she sold verses to a Christmas card firm. However, it would still be some years before her writing career would begin in earnest. She left the family bookbinding business in 1917 when she married a textile businessman, Leonard Whitaker. The couple later adopted two children, Valerie and Michael.
After moving to France in the early years of their marriage, the pair finally settled in Yorkshire, and it was around 1926 that Whitaker wrote her first short story ‘Sultan Jekker’. Unsure as to what to do with it, Whitaker found The Adelphi, a literary magazine run by John Middleton Murry, in her local library. At the time, The Adelphi was publishing writers such as D.H. Lawrence, who Whitaker greatly admired; she decided The Adelphi was where she wanted to be published.
It was a while before Whitaker had the courage to submit the story. In ‘Beginnings’, an essay recalling her early writing days, Whitaker describes walking up and down Cursitor Street, where The Adelphi offices were based, daring herself to post the story to them. She didn’t post it and instead took the story home with her.
Eventually, when Whitaker did submit the story, Murry wrote back – addressing Whitaker as ‘Sir’ – praising the story and offering to publish her work if the magazine was still in circulation in a couple of months’ time. Whitaker kept writing and her first short story was published in The Outlook in July 1927, but she recalls that she hardly noticed the significance of her debut publication because she was still waiting for The Adelphi to publish her work. A few months later, The Adelphi accepted her short story ‘Unleashed’ for publication. Over the next seven years, they would publish ten more.
As well as publishing her work, Murry helped Whitaker to find a publisher for a collection of her short stories. In October 1929, her first collection, Frost in April, was published by Jonathan Cape, followed by No Luggage in 1930, Five For Silver in 1932 and Honeymoon and Other Stories in 1934. Whitaker also in 1937 published, with friend Gay Taylor, The Autobiography of Ethel Firebrace, a spoof autobiography.
Whitaker’s sales were always small and early critics were not impressed, with many addressing Whitaker as ‘he’ in their reviews. However, critical acclaim arrived when Arnold Bennett gave her a rave review in the Evening Standard. Further praise followed from Vita Sackville-West in 1929, who compared Whitaker’s work to that of Katharine Mansfield, and from V.S. Pritchett, who called Whitaker a ‘watchful, unwasteful and noteworthy talent’ in a review for The Spectator.
Whitaker’s stories move slowly, describing appearances, emotions and movements in precise detail, before dramatically snapping shut, and sometimes tipping over into surrealism, in the final paragraphs. Thematically, Whitaker’s stories are concerned with everyday life, are mostly set in Yorkshire and often concentrate on the gender dynamics between men and women. Whitaker is unromantic when writing about relationships and rather pinpoints the social expectations and boundaries of the time.
For example, in ‘Pin’s Fee Wife’, Effie, a poor orphan who has been mistreated throughout her life, finds work in a fishmonger’s with brothers Ronald and Bert. The brothers fall out and, as stubborn revenge, Ronald marries Effie. As the two brothers reconcile, Effie is pushed out of her marital bed and into the attic. The story ends with Effie, humiliated and lonely, being packed onto a train to London by the brothers. It’s a twisted portrait of gender dynamics, almost a fairy tale gone sour (the story has echoes of Cinderella).
Another story, ‘Five For Silver’, centres on a young single mother taking her baby on a bus ride through London. Throughout the course of the journey, protagonist Freda recalls her fleeting relationship with the baby’s father, how she kept her pregnancy secret after he rejected her and how she escaped to London. ‘Five For Silver’ is interesting because of its portrayal of the limits of female agency within male-female relationships; Freda has the agency to seduce her partner but she is still rejected, and threatened with violence, because of her actions.
Whitaker’s final story, The Mandoline, was arguably her biggest commercial success. It was published in 1946 and broadcast on the radio. The author is quoted by her family as saying that she was ‘all written out’. In an essay in The Journey Home and Other Stories, Valerie Waterhouse argues that Whitaker’s lack of creative inspiration following the publication of The Mandoline could have been due to the changes in Whitaker’s domestic life. The downward turn in her writing coincided with the adoption of her two children and a change in her social status – the family moved to Bolton Old Hall, a Yorkshire Manor around this time – and Whitaker became more removed from the lives she was writing about.
Whitaker died in 1976. Following her death, her son, Michael Whitaker, permitted the release of The Crystal Fountain, a collection of Whitaker’s short stories. In 2017, Persephone Books published a collection of Whitaker’s short stories, The Journey Home and Other Stories.
In the preface to The Journey Home and Other Stories, Philip Hensher states ‘it is inexplicable how English letters failed to find a place for a writer of such verve, colour, range and power. She is one of the great English short story writers, and her work is slowly reaching some prominence.’ Although Whitaker’s work had been somewhat forgotten, the publication of a collection of her work is hopefully a sign that her work will gradually be recovered by a new generation of short story readers.