I remember when Persephone reissued Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At a Distance in 2011. It felt like everyone was reading it; it was as much in the air in my own private blogosphere as the latest Scott Turow or Dan Brown probably is in some other people’s. Teresa read it, too, and I think didn’t enjoy it as much as the generality of people did, which might have put me off reading it for a while, because I trust her taste so much. But I have finally got round to it, and I thought it was so, so good.
It was written in 1953, the last of Dorothy Whipple’s novels. All her others had been solid bestsellers, and this one wasn’t quite as much of a success, if I’m understanding the publication history correctly — not enough “madness and passion” to suit the publishers. But there was quite enough madness and passion to suit me, at least.
Avery and Ellen have a happy, confiding marriage. They live in a lovely, comfortable house, which Ellen manages mostly herself because of the Servant Problem (more on this later.) They have two children: Hugh, who is serving in the Army before going into publishing like his father, and Anne, who is still at boarding school. Both children adore and are adored by their parents. Ellen spends her time in her beloved garden, and Anne comes home to ride her horse Roma; there’s nothing the family wouldn’t do for each other.
Into this picture of postwar domestic bliss comes the stranger. Avery’s mother, lonely and unhappy at “not coming first with anyone any longer” now that her husband has died, decides to put an advertisement in the paper for a companion. She decides on Louise, an extremely polished, composed, and self-determined girl from a small town in France. Can you guess what happens after that? Can you?
In one way, this is a fairly straightforward story of infidelity and the destruction of a marriage, with the attendant heartbreak and embarrassment. In another, it’s a carefully-constructed character study. Whipple doesn’t waste a scene: at the beginning, each character is set up to do exactly what he or she goes on to do at the end. Avery and Ellen’s relationship, for instance, on page 11:
Not that he had not bewildered her at first. In their early days together, he sulked heavily when she offended him. To punish her, he wouldn’t eat. He would either fling away from the table leaving his food untouched, or would refuse to come to the table at all. Ellen was astonished. Very young in those days, she didn’t coax him as his mother had done, but kept going to look at him with wide grey eyes, rather like one child staring at another who is behaving unaccountably. She herself continued to eat throughout his sulks, never dreaming of abstention.
Here, Avery’s essential inertia, his childishness, the fact that his mother coddled him and brought him up to be “coaxed,” his temper, his desire to “punish” someone else for his bad temper — all this comes out in a few sentences. Likewise, we see Ellen’s even keel, her inability even to understand such entitled and self-destructive behavior, her refusal to stoop to his level. All this blossoms in the rest of the book as events unfold. This is true also of Louise, who has bitter pain in her background that causes her to dig in to what she can acquire — respect, or love, or status, or at least possessions — more and more gracelessly through the novel. (Louise, too, “never dreams of abstention”!)
Apart from the artificial mainspring of the book — the advertisement that brings Louise into the family (surely a woman like Mrs. North would have wanted an English girl and not a foreigner) — this book was so good at showing characters in a muddled situation. Yes, Avery’s vanity and Louise’s were a match for each other. Yes, Ellen’s pride, her painful embarrassment at being deceived, and her care for her children would dictate her actions, even if it wasn’t the most sensible path to take. I believed every word, and was captivated.
One of the really interesting themes in the book, as I mentioned earlier, is the Servant Problem, as it so often is post World War I. Servants — cooks, maids, gardeners, mother’s helpers — won’t live in Ellen’s house; it’s too far from town and not enough to do. So she has two part-time “day women” to help her, and does the rest herself. When she separates from Avery, she realizes that the skills she’s developed as a homemaker are the only skills she has to make a living. Mrs. Beard, the marvelous manager of an old people’s residential hotel in this novel, puts it plainly, siding with Ellen:
We’re not the new sort of women with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women who married too young to get a training and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.
Ellen finds a place for herself in this world, with these skills, helping to solve the Servant Problem with her own hands when her husband deserts her. Is this pre-war wistfulness, an unrealistic happy ending for a genuinely virtuous character as well as for society? Or is it women helping other women, as Mrs. Beard helps Ellen and Ellen helps Mrs. Beard in return, finding another unhappy woman a place at the same hotel?
I would certainly recommend this book. I admit I would have preferred the very last page to be different, but right up until then I enjoyed the entire thing. Are the rest of her books along these lines? What else might I read by her?