Someone at a Distance

Someone at a Distance

Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company. She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.

Old Mrs. North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.

In her pursuit of company to spoil her in the way that she wishes, Mrs. North welcomes a young French woman, Louise Lanier, into her home. Her housekeeper, Miss Daley, takes a strong dislike to the interloper, who won’t lift a finger to help around the house. And Mrs. North’s son and daughter-in-law, Avery and Ellen, find Louise unfriendly and difficult to talk to, although they seem happy enough that Mrs. North has a companion she likes, easing their guilt at not visiting as often as they perhaps should.

Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 novel is a study of how, given just the right (or wrong) circumstances, individual personalities can interact in such a way that disaster seems almost inevitable. In Someone at a Distance, she brings together a selfish young woman, smarting from her own heartbreak; an equally selfish older women, reveling in her attention; a weak-willed and selfish man; an obliging wife; and two children with a strong sense of right and wrong. In the background are a French family who’ve tried their best, a slew of concerned English neighbors, and a young French couple who have no idea that their own happy connection is, in a small and coincidental way, the catalyst that leads to the dissolution of a family.

Whipple renders her characters with great attention to detail, often noting habits and actions that only seem significant in retrospect. Louise’s love of Madame Bovary seems natural at first glance, but appears sinister in light of later events, particularly when contrasted with Ellen’s affection for the likes of Evelyn Underhill. Even minor characters, such as Louise’s parents, are rendered carefully, right down to Mr. Lanier’s Zola-esque appearance. These are full-bodied people, with flaws and foibles that bump up against each other in satisfying ways for a reader.

Many people have showered this book with love, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed at the turn this book took about halfway through. The first part of the book is a quiet, sometimes funny take on clashes of culture and personality. Later, however, it turns into a domestic drama, and all of the characters suffer a bit in the transition. Their primary qualities become fixed in stone, and we see little of the complexity of the first half. Ellen comes out well from it, as the crisis forces her to draw upon her industriousness and resolve. However, she is perhaps too resolved, letting herself be guided solely by her children and not taking a moment to stop and think. There’s a hardness about her, and especially about her children, that I found distasteful. Avery is a total mess, and I had no sympathy for his self-pitying justifications that made him seem comically weak. Yet I couldn’t get past the way these characters refused to have a proper conversation and find a way forward until it is too late to do so. Part of my annoyance is, I’m sure, down to the fact that I’m living in 2013, when attitudes about marriage are so different, but the alacrity with which these characters make irrevocable choices felt false.

Louise’s characterization in the last half of the book troubled me the most; she goes from being a confused and selfish girl to being a gold-digging vixen. Looking back, I could see that the idea of the vixen had been planted early on (with Madame Bovary, among other things), but I preferred the more complex rendering of a girl making misguided and even mean-spirited choices out of pain and fear. Despite the hints Whipple drops, Louise doesn’t feel like a vixen in those first chapters, and there’s no sense of her gradually growing into the role.

I was so absorbed in this book that I ended up reading it in just a couple of sittings, but my praise is tempered a little by my wish for a little more subtlety of characterization. As good as it is, the last half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first.

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9 Responses to Someone at a Distance

  1. Jeanne says:

    The first part of the set-up, that the mother didn’t come first with anybody anymore, is a problem I’ve been dealing with since my father died. So the simplification of character you’re describing hit me from the first quotation, with the word “spoilt.” That’s how somebody envious describes somebody else living a happy life.

    • Teresa says:

      It is entirely possible that Old Mrs. North was spoiled by her husband, if he gave in to her every wish, but we don’t find out much about their marriage. She does sometimes resent attention given to others, so there is a selfishness there, but a natural one that didn’t generally hurt others. I did sometimes think that aggressive pursuit of happiness in and of itself was treated as a flaw in this book. As I think about it, the book strongly endorses a sort of grin and bear it attitude suitable to the era. I generally support such an attitude, but it can be taken to extremes.

  2. Karen K. says:

    I loved this book, but I do agree with your assessment about the second half. I did think the ending was a little too pat. And I absolutely hated Avery — I think he and Louise deserve each other.

    • Teresa says:

      Avery was pretty terrible, but I wish there’d been more hints about his nature in the first half of the book. It didn’t seem like their marriage was rocky until it was over, and that rings false to me.

      I didn’t mind the ending–there was enough ambiguity about it for me–although it was rushed, and I thought Ellen was letting her children guide her life too much.

  3. heavenali says:

    I love all Dorothy Whipple books, this one was masterly I thought.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t love it as much as so many seem to, but I did like it enough to want to read more.

      • Karen K. says:

        I really liked The Priory and Because of the Lockwoods, which is out of print but there are plenty of used copies that are pretty inexpensive available. I wonder why Persephone hasn’t reprinted it yet!

  4. This was my introduction to Whipple. I was enthralled by the first half but by the time I finished I merely thought the book good. She takes extraordinary care to create characters who are, in your words, “full bodied” but for all the detail she gives, they somehow stop short of ever feeling real (especially Avery). Here, everything just got too melodramatic and silly for me by the end (especially the extent to which Ellen’s choices were guided by her daughter’s feelings). Still, it introduced me to Whipple’s style and I was much better prepared to enjoy The Priory, which is equally melodramatic and has equally flat characters but is still just as absorbing.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes to everything you say here–and I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one who was uneasy about the characterizations in the last half. I already have a copy of The Priory, so thanks for the warning about the similarities. Your using the word melodramatic actually helps me a lot because it suggests that these books might be best approached in the same way I’d approach a Douglas Sirk–style film melodrama. I love film melodramas, but I need to be in the right mind-set to fully appreciate them. I don’t think I’ve seen Whipple’s books referred to as melodramas so I wasn’t in the right mind-set.

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