Original publication date: 1953
My edition: 1999 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: Intriguing plot; and I’ve read and enjoyed another one of Dorothy Whipple’s books
How I acquired my copy: Persephone bookshop, September 2009
Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance is a very complicated novel to write about. It’s the story of the Norths, a suburban couple with two teenage children. Avery North’s aging mother engages a young Frenchwoman as her companion, and he develops an attachment to her that develops into an affair and later leads to divorce from his wife Ellen. This novel is a stunning book about the wide-ranging effects an affair can have on several families.
Dorothy Whipple’s language is very simple. Her prose is uncomplicated, yet there’s a lot of meaning behind it. Her upper-middle-class English characters are all absorbed in their own mundane lives, until the arrival of Louise literally shakes them all up. Louise is obviously not meant to be a sympathetic character (unlike Ruth in Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity); and at times she devolves into the stereotypical “other woman.” Much more preferable is Ellen, the sensible English housewife who finds her life shattered during the after the divorce.
It’s a sad subject, yet there are some truly funny moments; the surly Miss Daley going postal on Louise is an example that comes to mind. So in the end, each of the characters get what they deserve—even Avery, towards whom I feel a bit ambivalent. I feel as though he simply sat back and let things happen to him, rather than be an active member of the cast of characters.
It’s interesting that I’ve chosen to read this book now, so shortly after reading another Persephone title, Fidelity—it’s the story of an extramarital affair as told from the conventional point of view. Despite my feelings towards Avery and Louise, I though many of the other characters were well-drawn. Whipple’s description of the angst teenage Anne goes through is very real, as are the difficulties that Ellen must feel as she prepares for a life alone. After all, she’s been married for twenty years, and she’s never had a job or had to pay her own bills; how will she cope? It's funny, then, how Ellen ultimately finds solace in a group of elderly ladies. Like the other Whipple novel I've read, The Priory, this is not a novel in which much “happens,” but it’s a powerfully emotional novel. Whipple’s prose is simple, as I've said, but her way with words is absolutely stellar. She really knew how to play on her readers’ emotions, so that you feel invested in the lives of her characters.
This is Persephone no. 3. Endpaper below: