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.

Short Story Mini-Review: An Imaginative Woman by Thomas Hardy

An Imaginative Woman by Thomas Hardy (1894)

This is the first of Thomas Hardy’s short stories that I’ve read but I would now like to read more. As you might expect from Hardy, An Imaginative Woman is well-written and descriptive but with a slightly dark and melancholy feel.

Ella Marchmill, the ‘imaginative woman’ of the title is an aspiring poet, writing under the male pseudonym of John Ivy because ‘nobody might believe in her inspiration’ if they knew she was a woman. Her husband, a gunmaker, is her exact opposite in temperament and interests. When the couple and their three children go on holiday to Solentsea in Upper Wessex, Ella becomes obsessed with the previous occupier of their lodgings – a fellow poet by the name of Robert Trewe. During their stay in Solentsea she convinces herself she has fallen in love with a man she has never even met and desperately tries to arrange a meeting with Trewe. As I don’t want to spoil the story for you I won’t reveal any more of the plot and will leave it to you to find out whether or not Ella succeeds in meeting Robert Trewe.

No, he was not a stranger! She knew his thoughts and feelings as well as she knew her own; they were, in fact, the self-same thoughts and feelings as hers, which her husband distinctly lacked; perhaps luckily for himself, considering that he had to provide for family expenses.

“He’s nearer my real self, he’s more intimate with the real me than Will is, after all, even though I’ve never seen him,” she said.

The theme of this story was actually very similar to the Mary Elizabeth Braddon novel The Doctor’s Wife which I reviewed a few weeks ago, in which a woman becomes bored with her marriage and develops an obsession with another life that exists only in her fantasies. The outcome of the two stories, however, is very different. There’s a clever plot twist at the end of An Imaginative Woman but I found the final few paragraphs a bit too harsh and cruel.

If you’d like to read this story yourself, you can find it online here.

The illustration by Arthur J. Goodman shown at the top of this post originally appeared in The Pall Mall Magazine in April 1894 and depicts Robert Trewe and Ella Marchmill – Picture courtesy of Philip V. Allingham

Have you read any of Thomas Hardy’s short stories? Which one do you think I should read next?

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Although Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre have always been two of my favourite Victorian classics, this is the first time I’ve read anything by the youngest Bronte sister, Anne. I feel a bit guilty that it has taken me so long to get round to reading one of Anne’s books, especially as I enjoyed it almost as much as the other two books I’ve just mentioned.

Anne’s writing style is not the same as Charlotte’s or Emily’s – there’s less dramatic romanticism and poetic imagery, although she still writes with a lot of passion. She has quite a sharp style that is probably more similar to Jane Austen than to either of her sisters.

I won’t go into the plot in too much detail but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen Huntingdon, a young woman who leaves her alcoholic husband and goes into hiding with her five year-old son, Arthur. Not long after arriving at Wildfell Hall she meets local farmer, Gilbert Markham, who falls in love with her. When Gilbert questions her about the rumours circulating about her in the village, she allows him to read her diary in which she had recorded the details of her unhappy marriage.

The book has an interesting structure – it’s told partly in the form of letters from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law Jack Halford, and partly as extracts from Helen Huntingdon’s diary. I loved the first section from Gilbert’s point of view, describing the arrival of the mysterious woman at Wildfell Hall with everyone wondering who she was and where she came from. The story probably wouldn’t have worked had it not been set in the 19th century. Today there’s nothing unusual in a single mother living alone with her little boy, but in 1828 when The Tenant of Wildfell Hall takes place, it makes her the target of gossip and scandal.

When Helen’s diary began it took me a while to get used to the change of voice and the change of pace but it soon developed into the most powerful section of the book. I didn’t particularly like Helen as I thought she was just a little bit too saintly and perfect, but she was a very strong person who defied convention to do what she thought was best for herself and her child. Her diary entries are filled with descriptions of some really despicable characters and describe scenes of drunkenness, violence, verbal and physical abuse, and adultery, which I can imagine readers in the 19th century would have been shocked by. Apparently after Anne’s death, re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was prevented by Charlotte, who considered the choice of subject to be a big mistake. However, I would have no hesitation recommending this book to anyone who has enjoyed Emily and Charlotte’s work, as well as those of you who have never read any other Bronte books.

Note: This book counts towards the Women Unbound Reading Challenge because it portrays a woman who has the strength to leave her abusive husband and build a new life, working as an artist to support herself and her son – almost unheard of in the 19th century.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classics/Page: 401/Publisher: Wordsworth Classics/Year: 1996 – first published 1848/Source: My own copy bought new

Review: The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson

When Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed with an unidentified terminal illness and given only a month to live, he decides to make the most of his final days. Accompanied by his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (also known as Zipper) he sets off on a journey round the world, visiting each city on his list in alphabetical order. Will they make it to the end of the alphabet before time runs out for Ambrose?

At 128 pages, this is more of a novella than a novel and could easily be read in one sitting. I think the book might have lost its impact had it been any longer; I felt that the shortness of the book and the shortness of the individual chapters reflected the speed at which Ambrose’s remaining days were slipping away from him.

I loved the alphabetical theme which runs throughout the book from the characters’ initials (AZ and ZA) to the chapter titles (each stage of their journey is headed with the corresponding letter of the alphabet). Each place they visit brings back memories and evokes strong emotions for both Ambrose and Zipper. Richardson has given his characters a surprising amount of depth for such a short book; it was interesting to see how they each coped with the news of Ambrose’s illness in their own different ways.

Although there is quite a lot of dialogue in the book, the author has decided not to use quotation marks which made following the conversations unnecessarily confusing. I also sometimes found it hard to tell whether certain scenes were happening in the present or in a flashback. However, other readers will probably love his writing style.

Despite the tragic subject matter, I thought it was a warm, charming story and although I probably would never have chosen to read it if I hadn’t won a copy in a competition, it’s an impressive debut novel by CS Richardson.

Genre: General fiction/Pages: 128/Publisher: Portobello Books/Year: 2009/Source: won in a contest

Review: Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill by Dimitri Verhulst

I’ve read good reviews of this book and really wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t. Although it’s very short (only 145 pages) it took me almost a week to finish it because I found it difficult to get interested in the story.

The book is set in the tiny and remote village of Oucwegne, a place that is slowly dying due to the lack of girls being born in recent generations. Madame Verona and her musician husband Monsieur Potter live in an isolated house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the village. As they get older, it becomes more and more difficult to walk up and down the hill. When Monsieur Potter hangs himself from a tree after being diagnosed with cancer, he leaves his wife enough firewood to last another twenty years. During those twenty years, Madame Verona lives alone with only an assortment of stray dogs for company, waiting for a luthier (cello-maker) to build her a cello using the wood of the tree from which her husband hanged himself. Eventually she places the last log on the fire and, as the title suggests, comes down the hill, knowing she won’t have the strength to go back up ever again.

The problem I had with the book is that there’s very little action, there’s no suspense as we know what’s going to happen right from the beginning, and there’s almost no dialogue. However, this is more to do with my own personal reading preferences rather than a criticism of the book itself – it’s not supposed to be a thriller after all. Most of the 145 pages are devoted to a string of humorous anecdotes describing life in an isolated village where only six people attend church, the men are obsessed with playing games of table football and a cow was once elected mayor. Most of the characters Verhulst describes are portrayed as eccentric and not particularly likeable. It’s easy to see why Madame Verona was in no hurry to rejoin the community, preferring to stay on the hill with her memories of her husband. The final few chapters, though, were poignant and moving and will be understood by anyone who has lost someone they love.

This book has been translated from the original Dutch, but even in translation Dimitri Verhulst’s writing is poetic and thought-provoking. If you can appreciate the beautiful writing for its own sake and are happy to read a book where nothing really happens, then you would probably enjoy Madame Verona. I would be prepared to try more of Verhulst’s books because he does have a very nice style, but this one just didn’t appeal to me.

Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 145/Publisher: Portobello Books (translated by David Colmer)/Year: 2009/Source: Won a copy in contest