I had vaguely heard of Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966) but never read any of her books and knew nothing about her. Then a friend, author and avid reader, recently listed her ten best novels of all time on Twitter. Someone at a Distance (1953) was the only one on her list that I hadn’t read. What? Time I put that right, obviously. So I did.
My friend told me I wouldn’t be disappointed and she was right. JB Priestley dubbed Whipple “the Jane Austen of the 20th century” and I can see what he meant although she also reminds me, perhaps because of the period, of both Josephine Tey and Daphne du Maurier
It is the early 1950s. The war is a very recent memory and rationing is still in place. The family at the centre of this novel are well-to-do businessmen class although they can’t get live-in staff any more for their generously proportioned houses. Whipple’s exposition is strong and clear. We meet difficult, self-absorbed Mrs North and her son Avery who lives happily nearby with his wife and two children, one at boarding school and the other doing his National Service. Then Mrs North, given to changeable moods and whims, decides to recruit a French companion, Louise Lanier. to live with her. And, very gradually and subtly, the rot sets in because Louise has an agenda of her own and is not at all what she seems – although she tends to create uneasiness. There is a whiff of Emma Bovary about her boredom with French provincial life. Inevitably Mrs North adores her blindly but then circumstances change and the novel sets off on a painful but immaculately observed path.
Someone at a Distance is a study of marriage, family dynamics and malevolence with splendid characterisation. Apart from Louise, every character is at best likeable and at worst more sinned against than sinning. They are all what EM Forster would have called rounded examples of Homo Fictus. Ellen, Avery’s wife, for example has to find inner strength and some independence – and does so convincingly. The staff at Anne’s boarding school are plausibly kind and supportive. And we all need people in our lives like wise, kind Mrs Brockington, a sort of mother-figure to Ellen, and Miss Daley, old Mrs North’s “help” who turns out to be perceptive and right there when she’s needed despite her dreadful singing voice. Louise’s parents are decent, well meaning but insular, staunch Catholic folk too. They do not deserve what their daughter does to them although their reaction when they finally discover the truth is satisfying.
I found myself unable to predict where this thoughtful novel might be going. As omniscient narrator, Whipple shows us what each main character is doing and thinking so the reader is well aware of all the complexities. Surely after everything that happens there couldn’t be any kind of happy ending? Well, yes and no. Suffice it to say that where well drawn sensible, and sensitive, human beings are involved there is always hope.
Whipple enjoyed great popularity between the wars but then fell out of favour. Her books have, however, been republished in recent years by Persephone Books, a company which specialises in bringing good authors back to public awareness. There are eight Whipple novels and I’m now looking forward to discovering the other seven
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves The Spire by William Golding