Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Originally published in 1953, Someone at a Distance is my first experience of Dorothy Whipple’s work. The central story is a timeless one, focussing as it does on the systematic destruction of a loving marriage – and yet, Whipple captures everything with such insight and attention to detail that it all feels so compelling, pushing the reader forward to discover how the narrative will end. It’s certainly one of the most absorbing novels I’ve read this year.

The novel centres on the North family – principally Avery North, a handsome, successful partner in a London-based publishing company, and his kind, considerate wife, Ellen. The Norths, who are in their early forties, have two children: eighteen-year-old Hugh, who is in the midst of completing his National Service, and fifteen-year-old Anne, the apple of her father’s eye. While Anne spends much of the year away at boarding school, during the holidays she returns to the Norths’ beautiful home in the suburban countryside where she is devoted to her horse, Roma.

With domestic help being hard to come by following the changes ushered in by the Second World War, Ellen is kept busy with domestic duties, taking care of the house – Netherfold – and the burgeoning garden. She has little interest in attending parties or literary events associated with Avery’s job. In fact, being a rather shy, unassuming individual at heart, she eschews these social gatherings in favour of staying at home. In any case, Avery – a good networker – is well able to make useful contacts and relationships for himself.

Guiltily, pleasurably, she avoided the parties Bennett and North gave for authors, agents and the like. At first, she had youthfully tried to do what might be considered her duty as a publisher’s wife. She moved from group to group, smiling. But everybody talked vociferously, and though here and there people moved aside, smiling to let her pass, nobody interrupted conversation for her. Slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, she didn’t look important and nobody wondered who she was. (p. 9)

Ellen’s preoccupation with her home and immediate family also leaves little time for Avery’s mother, old Mrs North, an elderly widow who lives in her own house (The Cedars) nearby. Much to the old lady’s annoyance, there is always some pressing engagement or activity on the horizon for Ellen whenever she comes to visit – a situation that leaves Ellen feeling rather guilty whenever she has to rush away.

To all intents and purposes, the young Norths have the perfect life. Ellen and Avery seem to love one another dearly; they have two wonderful children, a beautiful home and a comfortable lifestyle. In short, everything in the garden appears to be wonderfully rosy.

However, everything changes when old Mrs North hires a young French girl, Louise Lanier, to keep her company at The Cedars, and to pass on something of the language here and there. Right from the start, it is abundantly clear to the reader that Mademoiselle Lanier is trouble. A spiteful and selfish minx at heart, Louise Lanier has come to England to get away from her former secret lover, a local dignitary who rejected Louise in favour of marrying a woman from his own social class. In short, Louise is looking to avenge the humiliation she believes she has suffered as a way of proving her worth back in France.

Slowly but surely, Louise inveigles her way into the lives of old Mrs North, Avery and Ellen, spreading her own particular brand of poison very carefully as she goes. There is an early hint of it here in this scene after Christmas dinner in which Louise passes judgement on Anne North who looks very attractive in her new white tulle dress.

‘Oh, she is very pretty,’ repeated Louise. ‘She will go a long way.’ She drew on her cigarette and threw the end of it into the fire. ‘If she is careful,’ she said, exhaling smoke through her nostrils.

Ellen stared in frowning displeasure, but Avery laughed, and loudly. (p. 129)

Nevertheless, old Mrs North is taken in, buoyed by the company of Louise and her considerable interest in getting dressed up. The fact that Louise encourages her employer to make the most of her appearance does not go amiss. As a consequence, when the old lady dies, Louise finds herself a beneficiary in the will to the tune of £1,000. Not that Louise spares much of a thought for her former companion – after all, she had to go at some point, so it might as well be now.

She felt nothing in particular for old Mrs. North, except that it was very nice of her to have left her the money. After all, Mrs North was old. She had to die some time. And it was not as if she had known her long or had had time to become attached to her. (p. 149)

Unfortunately for Avery and Ellen, Louise comes to stay with them at Netherfold while old Mrs North’s estate is being settled, and it is at this point that she really starts to get her claws into Avery. Out of pure spite and viciousness, Louise sets out to deliberately ruin the Norths’ marriage, capturing Avery as some kind of trophy in the process. While there is no doubt that Avery is a loving husband and father, he is also infallibly human – something Louise leverages when he shows a flicker of attraction to her.

As she smoked now, she smiled, and her smile was compounded of triumph, scorn and excitement. Triumph because she had won, and excitement because the game had started in earnest now. She had dangled the bait. No need to take any more notice of it now. She herself was the bait. (p. 187)

All too soon, Ellen and Anne catch Avery in an unguarded moment with Louise, and their image of him is shattered. The situation then escalates very quickly leaving Avery utterly ashamed of his behaviour but too proud to make amends – a plight that turns Ellen’s world upside down, forcing her to rethink her life and position as a wife and mother. Meanwhile, Louise is revelling in the prospect of being able to avenge her former lover, Paul, now happily married and settled with his new wife in their hometown of Amigny.

It was much more amusing this time when the power was all hers. Much more interesting when the heart was not involved, though Avery was certainly attractive. In a way, she was avenging herself on Paul. She was getting her own back. The conquest, the annexation of Avery was necessary to restore her confidence in herself. (p. 202)

In writing Someone at a Distance, Whipple has created a very good novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves. After a few moments of passion and desire, the idyllic nature of the Norths’ existence is fractured forever.

The main characters are drawn with understanding and insight, and their motives explored with a real sense of depth – points which make the core story feel all too believable for its day. While the consequences of Avery’s foolish indiscretion with Louise would probably play out somewhat differently today, the social stigma associated with such an incident was very different back then. Nevertheless, the emotions of shame, humiliation and rejection that Whipple explores are undoubtedly timeless – factors that ensure the novel retains a relevance in the contemporary world. There are times when it is almost too distressing to observe the impact of Louise’s behaviour on each member of the North family as she uncovers and exploits their individual vulnerabilities to her own advantage.

In addition to her admirable fleshing out of the main characters, Whipple also does a fine job in painting the secondary players in the mix. Individuals like Mrs Beard, the formidable manager of a local hotel/care home, whose demeanour is signalled by the following brief description.

Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large bust, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance. (p. 53)

Louise’s humane parents are beautifully drawn too, the humble, straightforward nature of their lives in small-town France contrasting sharply with their daughter’s unnecessary airs and graces. Louise makes it quite clear to the Laniers that they will never be good enough for her, their status as shopkeepers being less than ideal.

All in all, this is a very fine novel, one that may well suit fans of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Jane Howard. It also represents my contribution to Jessie’s Persephone readathon – more details here.

41 thoughts on “Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

  1. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review as always Jacqui! I’m hoping to review this for the Persephone readathon too.I think we had a very similar experience with it. I totally agree the insight into the characters is brilliantly done. I really enjoyed the secondary characters too, some comic relief without jarring against the main story!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, absolutely – the humour is a nice touch, isn’t it? Some well-judged moments of lightness amidst the tragedy of the principal story itself. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you have to say about this novel!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good point about it being one of the signs of a talented writer. There’s often a danger that the minor players can be a little thinly sketched (especially when the central characters are so clear and vivid), but that isn’t the case here. They’re actually rather memorable in certain respects.

      Reply
  2. Liz

    I am a recent, and now utterly devoted, Whipple fan. I love her work and particularly enjoyed this one. I agree completely with everything you say! 😀

    Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    How I enjoy your reviews, Jacqui, although they do make me want to get hold of every single book you review. This sounds beautifully nuanced, although I am not sure that the story of a breakdown of a marriage due to a third party is exactly what I am looking for right now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. That’s very kind of you to say! Nevertheless, I think you’re right to try and avoid this one. It strikes me as being too painful a portrait of the wrecking of a marriage for you to read at this point in time. Stick to the interesting translations and crime novels instead. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It really is very, very good. Definitely one to take your time over as there’s a lot to unravel and empathise with, especially in relation to Ellen’s emotions. I hope you get a chance to read it fairly soon!

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    The stories and the characters sound so compelling. I need to read more Twentieth Century Literature of this type. I am s but stuck in the Ninteenth Century. I will probably try Elizabeth Taylor soon. Troubled relationships can make for such great stories.

    Reply
  5. heavenali

    Wonderful review, you have really captured this well crafted nuanced novel. Whipple’s observations are so good, she writes scenes like the one you have quoted above perfectly. So good at exploring relationships within families particularly. Louise though is a brilliantly written spiteful character.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Ali. As you say, it’s very finely crafted. At first I thought this novel was going to be a bit slow, but then I realised what Dorothy Whipple was doing with all that groundwork about the idyllic nature of the Norths’ life in the countryside. By the time Louise springs her trap, the reader has become so emotionally invested in Ellen and Avery (Ellen in particular) that the destruction of their marriage feels all the more painful as a result. I’m finding it hard to recall the last novel where I felt quite so much sympathy and concern for a fictional character. It’s really quite an achievement on the author’s part.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui. And an interesting analogy with Taylor. I’ve not yet read any Whipple but from what I’ve heard she’s very good a capturing domestic crises and that resonates with Taylor again. I know my BFF thought very highly of her short stories so I obviously need to explore a little more… ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She might be a little closer to Elizabeth Jane Howard, but I haven’t read enough of her to tell for sure! The insight into family relationships definitely reminded me a little of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work, particularly her novel ‘A Game of Hide and Seek’. Anyway, there’s something about domestic life in this post-war period that I find endlessly appealing. Even though the aftermath of the war doesn’t loom large here, the social attitudes of the day definitely play their part. How difficult it must have been for women to deal with the fallout from any potential scandal back then…

      Reply
  7. Caroline

    I just overflew your review as this is a book I might read soon. It’s pretty much one of the first books I got because of blogging. Just when I started, back in 2010, there were quite a few of the bloggers I know and like who enjoyed this very much. I’m very glad you did too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I really hope you like it. I’d be interested to hear how you think it compares to some of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels. It struck me as being in the same kind of territory.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I read an article about Whipple not so long ago and came close to getting one of her novels – it’s always great to see a writer endorsed by someone you trust first though! Maybe one for next year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Was that the piece in The Times by any chance? A friend sent me a link to their article about her books as she thought they would be right up my street. Luckily, I already had a copy of Someone at a Distance in my TBR just waiting to be read. I’ll be interested to see what you make of Ms Whipple if you do decide to give her a go. She isn’t quite as precise or economical as Elizabeth Taylor, but then again few writers are!

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    Haven’t heard of Dorothy Whipple although Wikipedia tells me she was very popular between the wars. I think They Were Sisters is a must read for us. I see it was made into a film starring Phyllis Calvert and James Mason.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like a good bet for you. A reader whose opinion I value very highly recommended They Were Sisters to me yesterday, so that’s definitely a strong point in ts favour!

      Reply
  10. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. I’m ashamed to say I have Someone at a Distance sitting on the shelf gathering dust, but I’m tempted to bump it up the list given this rather glowing recommendation. I’ve found Persephone Books to be a fine publisher.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. No shame in that at all. I’m sure we’re all guilty of it to some extent. I’ve just started reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin which I must have bought a good seven or eight years ago and then promptly sidelined in favour of other things! Anyway, back to the Whipple…it really drew me in. I’m struggling to think of the last time when I felt so emotionally invested in the plight of a fictional character. All in all, a devastating portrait of toxicity in action.

      Reply
  11. Grier

    Someone at a Distance is my first Whipple, too, and my favorite. It was quite a page turner for me, her unfussy yet descriptive writing and the unfolding story just drew me in. I especially liked the last part of the novel, which shows what happens to each character after the crisis and that Ellen is not shown as a helpless victim. Thanks for a terrific review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it too, Grier – it definitely seems to be a favourite amongst fans of Whipple’s work.

      ************Possible spoilers ***************

      That’s a great point about the ending, too. There was a time about three-quarters of the way through when I really feared for Ellen’s future, but luckily she managed to find a way forward in the end. I’ve seen some criticism from a couple of other readers that the ending was too neatly tied up, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. As you say, it was heartening to see that Ellen wasn’t just cast as a floundering victim unable to move on from such a shattering breach of trust.

      Reply
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  14. buriedinprint

    The only novel of hers I’ve read is They Knew Mr Knight but much of what you’ve said about this one would be true of that as well. At the time, I had access to a university library, which had an old copy of her Random Commentary and I found it delightful to read with the novel. I’m not sure how much it had to say about her other writing – as all the notes I took were very TKMK focussed – but she did have a lot to say about her writing process and the nuts-and-bolts of her craft and business too. I really enjoyed reading your review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. And thank you for the information about Random Commentary, too – that does sound like an interesting read. I just looked it up on a certain online retailer’s website where secondhand copies are selling from £350 upwards. Clearly a very rare book!

      Reply
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