Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Today would have been Dorothy Whipple’s birthday – and she is the next author in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I have never read any of her books but have been curious about them for a while and I thought a good place to start might be Someone at a Distance, her 1953 novel which seems to be her most popular and which has been published both as a standard dove-grey Persephone and as a Persephone Classic.

On the surface, Someone at a Distance is the simple story of the breakdown of a marriage. At the beginning of the novel, publisher Avery North and his wife, Ellen, seem to be the perfect couple. Having been married for twenty years, they are no longer passionately in love but still have an affectionate relationship and appear to be quite content with their comfortable, middle-class lives. They are devoted to their two children – eighteen-year-old Hugh, who is away on National Service, and fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Anne – and have a lovely house in the countryside with a large paddock for Anne’s beloved pony, Roma. If only Avery’s mother, the elderly Mrs North, hadn’t begun to feel lonely living alone in her big house nearby, and if only she hadn’t decided to look for a companion for the summer…

Old Mrs North responds to an advertisement in The TimesYoung Frenchwoman desires to spend July, August in English home. French conversation. Light domestic duties – and soon Louise Lanier comes to stay. Louise is the daughter of a bookseller in a provincial town in France and sees coming to England as a way of escaping from the humiliation of being rejected by her lover who has recently married another woman. Bored and miserable, Louise sets her sights on Avery North and won’t be satisfied until she has caused as much trouble as possible.

As I’ve said, the plot is a simple one, but Whipple’s writing and the way in which she tells the story give it the additional layers that make it such a compelling read. You can see what is going to happen almost from the start, but you don’t know exactly when or how it will happen – and when the inevitable moment comes, you feel as shocked and upset as the characters themselves. My sympathies were with Ellen; she came across as such a genuinely nice person, who really didn’t deserve the treatment she receives from Avery and Louise. I was impressed by how well she coped with the huge changes in her life…at least until an incident near the end of the book, which disappointed me slightly as I discovered that Ellen didn’t feel quite the way I would have liked her to have felt (sorry for being vague, but I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers).

The reactions of the other characters – the North children, the servants, friends and neighbours, and Louise’s family in France – are also explored. In some ways their thoughts and emotions are timeless, but in others this does feel like a book of its time, for example when Anne is too ashamed to tell her teachers and friends at school about her parents’ separation because she thinks they will view her differently. As for Louise, she is a wonderful character. It would have been easy for Whipple to write her as a one-dimensional villain, who does what she does purely out of spite and nastiness, but instead she takes the time to show us Louise’s life in France and to try to explain what made her such a bitter person. There were times when I could almost, but not quite, feel sorry for Louise – although in the end it was her parents I pitied, as they were forced to come to terms with the sort of woman their daughter was.

Someone at a Distance is a great book, with much more emotional depth and complexity than I expected when I first started to read. Now that I’ve been introduced to Dorothy Whipple, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her work.