Thursday, 7 August 2014

DOROTHY WHIPPLE Someone at a Distance (1953)

Persephone Classics UK, 1999

As for his wife, thought Louise, hearing Ellen hurrying downstairs to make breakfast, the foolish creature didn't seem to realise that it was necessary to fight.  The battle was joined and would be over before she knew there was one.  But Louise had no compunction.  The woman didn't deserve what she had if she couldn't keep it.  Besides, why should other people always have everything and Louise Lanier nothing?  It was time for a change.

The Novel:  Ellen and Avery North are a happily married middle class English couple, no longer passionate about each other but still affectionate and very much devoted to their children, fifteen year old schoolgirl Anne and eighteen year old Hugh, the son whom Avery hopes to take into his publishing business once the boy completes his mandatory National Service.  World War Two has only recently ended and the Norths –– along with everyone of their generation who endured air raids, food rationing and enforced separation for six miserable years –– can hardly believe their luck at having survived the conflict relatively unscathed.  They still have 'Netherfold' –– their comfortable home in the semi-rural village of Newington, only an hour by train from London – and the sort of settled, family-oriented life they both want and enjoy, even if that enjoyment is occasionally dampened by the presence of Avery's mother, a cantankerous, difficult to please woman who lives nearby in her own, even larger house known simply as 'The Cedars.'

Old Mrs North's most frequent complaint is that she isn't visited enough by her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, to whom she remains an exasperating figure they nevertheless can't help feeling sorry for because she has a heart condition and is obviously lonely, living in such a grand house with only her housekeeper, the ever-devoted Miss Daley, to keep her company.  Mrs North's loneliness prompts her to answer a newspaper advertisement, placed by a French girl seeking a 'position' in an English home for the summer where she will offer 'French conversation' and 'light domestic duties' in exchange for her room and board.  Ellen and Avery are skeptical, dismissing the idea as one of the old woman's attention-seeking whims, but Mrs North is adamant that the girl must come and spend the summer with her as her companion, whether they approve of the idea or not.  Letters are exchanged and the arrival of Mademoiselle Lanier – who lives at home with her parents in the small provincial town of Amigny –– is eagerly awaited.

Louise Lanier has reasons of her own for seeking a summer job in England.  A spoilt, imperious girl who thinks nothing of bullying her adoring mother and father if doing so will get her what she wants, she's just been jilted by her lover, Paul Devoisy, so he can marry a girl more suitable to his position as the favoured eldest son of the wealthiest, most respectable family in town.  Louise can't stand Paul's prim and proper fiancée Germaine and has no desire to marry any of Amigny's currently eligible bachelors, all of whom bore her to distraction and, worse, have no prospects of earning or inheriting the kind of wealth that Paul is poised to inherit upon his father's death.  

Expecting little from her trip to England, Louise is surprised to find something of a kindred spirit in her new employer –– a woman not averse to speaking bluntly when she feels the situation warrants it and criticizing others, especially her virtuous and well-meaning daughter-in-law, behind their backs.  Although Louise initially fails to make a favourable impression on Avery, Ellen or the girlishly innocent Anne, she makes a very favourable impression on Mrs North who, as the summer progresses, begins to treat her more like a confidante than an employee, further alienating the already suspicious and disgruntled Miss Daley.

Ellen, however, has no time to dwell on what's happening at The Cedars.  She has her own house to run and her civic duty to perform which, in her case, means paying regular visits to Somerton, a former manor house converted into a residential hotel (a polite English pseudonym for a nursing home) and occupied, for the most part, by elderly widows like her friend Mrs Brockington.  The ladies are always as delighted to see Ellen as she is to see them, finding in her unselfish kindness a welcome respite from the unpredictable, sometimes abrasive personality of the hotel manager, the formidable Mrs Beard.  Ellen and her children also have a sentimental attachment to Somerton, having spent a lot of time there during the war while Avery was off serving in the Army.  It's these visits, along with preparing for Anne's impending return to school, which occupy Ellen's severely limited spare time – so much so that Louise's return to France is barely noticed by her despite the fact that Avery has now been won over by the visitor to a certain degree, so glad has he been to see the positive effect the girl's presence has had on his mother's health and fractious disposition.

The same cannot be said of Louise, who faces the same frustration when she returns to Amigny, compounded now by her former lover's marriage and the disturbing news that his mealy-mouthed bride is now pregnant with his child.  Insult is added to injury when Germaine begs her help to run the annual church charity bazaar but Louise, eager as always to humiliate her rival, uses their meetings as a means of impressing everybody with her firsthand knowledge of exotic 'English ways,' taking pleasure in the thought that news of her recently acquired sophistication must inevitably find its way back to Paul.  But her plan backfires.  Being in Paul's house without being able to see or touch him proves too much for her to bear and when a letter from Ellen arrives, begging her to return to England because Mrs North has fallen ill and is desperate to see her again, she writes back immediately, promising to return by the very first boat.

This time, Louise pursues a different approach with the Norths.  She makes more of an effort to make herself agreeable to them and especially to the handsome, often befuddled Avery, who's again relieved and pleased to see his mother's health improve as a direct consequence of her arrival.  So dependent on Louise's dubious affection does Mrs North become that she persuades Avery to speak to the girl on her behalf, asking her to consider the idea of remaining in Newington indefinitely.  This, of course, proves to Louise how indispensable she's become to her employer and, to a lesser extent, to the much friendlier, almost completely won-over Avery.  This knowledge gives her power, which she exercises by immediately returning to France and the home of her timid shopkeeping parents.  Here she plans to wait, biding her time until Mrs North's need for her –– and her son's clearly growing attraction to her –– become too strong for either party to successfully resist.  

Louise is still biding her time in Amigny, silently despising everyone and everything around her, when a letter brings the news that Mrs North has died and left her the sum of £1000 in her will – a legacy, her father soon informs her, equivalent to nine hundred thousand French francs.  Better still, she must return to England to collect her inheritance, where she will stay at Netherfold as the North's guest, not as anyone's employee, until the details of the old lady's will have been scrutinized and her estate finally settled.

Louise's presence at Netherfold soon becomes a nuisance to Ellen, who finds her reluctance to help around the house irritating but is too polite – and too dejected by the death of her mother-in-law and the wearying business of clearing out her house – to say so.  Yet this is not enough to encourage Louise to return to France.  She remains at Netherfold well past the time she was expected to remain there –– ostensibly to help Anne improve her poor French during the girl's summer holidays – flirting with Hugh and, when that fails to produce the desired result, flirting openly with Avery, who finds himself flummoxed at the sight of her stretched out on his back lawn one Saturday afternoon, sunbathing in a bikini.  Finding himself physically attracted to Louise, his initial reaction is to blame his entirely innocent wife for what he's feeling.  'Avery felt a stab of anger.  Really Ellen shouldn'tshe should realiseShe shouldn't take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.  Damn it all, he was a man like any other, and whether she knew it or not, this girl was more provocative than any he had come across.'  Safe or not, his attraction to Louise becomes impossible to deny and sees him pay a nocturnal visit to her room one night where nature quickly and unsurprisingly takes its inevitable course. 

Ellen, however, trusts her husband implicitly, never believing him capable of adultery, let alone of betraying her with a remote, immaculately groomed creature like the haughty Louise.  This is what makes it so shattering to discover him making love to Louise on their living room sofa one afternoon –– a sight she witnesses only because she decided to accompany Anne on a shopping trip to the village and thoughtlessly left some letters she needed to post behind on the hall table, letters she automatically and unthinkingly returned to the house to fetch.  Anne also sees everything her mother sees, destroying forever her illusion of Avery as the loving and indulgent father she had, up till that moment, unconditionally respected and adored.  Anne can't bear the sight of her father's shame and flees from it, but Ellen remains behind, demanding that Louise leave at once and still trusting, in her innocence, to Avery to take charge of the situation just as he's done during every other crisis they've encountered during their marriage.  

But Avery, too wracked with guilt to do much more than preen and bluster, has one more surprise in store for his heartbroken wife.  While Ellen goes out to search for Anne, who has taken her horse and ridden away from the house in order to put as much distance as possible between herself and the day's shattering events, he packs his bags and leaves for London with Louise, who, as might be expected, is far from dissatisfied with her day's handiwork.  She has Avery to herself and winning him away from Ellen, awkward though things were for a time, was much easier than she'd expected it to be.  Her only regret is that the hotel he finds for them in London isn't The Ritz or The Savoy.  This will change though, she assures herself, once she persuades him to divorce his naïve fool of a wife and marry her.

With this previously unthinkable chain of events set in motion, it hardly takes any time at all for the secure if  mundane life the Norths have lived together to begin to unravel.  Avery, stung to the core by the powerful combination of guilt and pride, refuses to consider the option of returning to Ellen, preferring to make a 'quick clean break of it' to the dismal prospect of 'eating humble pie' for the rest of his life.  He soon turns to brandy for solace, having found none in the distant and self-centred Louise, whom he soon comes to realize he doesn't even like, much less love.  His actions have a similarly devastating effect on his children, with Hugh vowing to reenlist in the army once his National Service has been completed rather than work for the man who so callously betrayed his mother, while Anne, formerly a happy and vivacious girl, becomes quiet and withdrawn, shunning the company of her school friends to the point where her behaviour begins to be of genuine concern to her teachers and headmistress.  

In the meantime Ellen, her world as she previously knew it  literally destroyed overnight, is forced to face the harsh reality of being a divorced middle-aged woman with nothing but the income from a very small personal annuity to support herself and her children.  (She refuses to accept any alimony from Avery, taking only what's necessary to pay for Anne's education.)  Her only option is to ask Mrs Beard for an assistant manager's job at Somerton, where her housekeeping skills can be put to some use and she and the children can live in the disused stable she's eventually given permission to convert into a house.  Gradually, she emerges from her depression and begins to build a new life for herself while Avery, who's persuaded by his partner to quit his job so that Hugh can take his place, is dragged to New York and then to France by the increasingly shrewish Louise, who intends to repay him for his months of slothful silent drunkenness by bleeding him dry of every cent he possesses.  But not even the coldly calculating Louise gets everything her own way.  Taking Avery home to meet her parents, she's shocked to discover that they want nothing more to do with her after realizing that it was she, acting purely out of selfishness, who destroyed the North's marriage, bringing shame not only upon herself but upon their good name as well.

Yet, despite it all, Ellen can't stop loving her ex-husband, the man who stayed by her side the night their son was born and she came so perilously close to dying.  A chance meeting at Somerton, where Louise has unknowingly insisted is the ideal place for herself and Avery to stop and eat lunch one day, brings about, not a reconciliation, but an understanding and even a tiny glimmer of hope for the future.  'Ellen,' Avery realizes as the unfed Louise waits for him to drive them away from what, to her, is now a grim and hateful place, 'had forgiven him.  His children never would, he knew; but Ellen had forgiven him.  In those few moments, she had given him hope and purpose.  He would redeem himself.  He could, now that he had something to work for.  She was the harmony of his life.  What a disordered existence he had led without her.  If it took years – and it would, until Anne had settled in a life of her own –– he would wait and hope to get back to Ellen.'

Persephone Books UK first reprint edition, 1999
The power of a novel like Someone at a Distance lies in its subtlety, in its muted yet profoundly engaging depiction of a middle-aged couple coming to terms with an unthinkable calamity in their humdrum lives and responding to it –– not with hate, recrimination and teams of writ-serving divorce lawyers – but with dignity, restraint and a mutual desire to secure a decent future for their children.  If it's a novel about adultery and betrayal, then it's also a novel about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption.  Some may be put off by its perhaps too hopeful ending, but to be disappointed by it is to deny the book's real purpose, which is to suggest how everything we take for granted in life can be stolen from us in the blink of an eye, given the right opportunity and the right combination of insidious or merely unforeseen circumstances.  

The book also addresses the idea of human evil in the same allusively understated way that Henry James addressed it in novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902).  Like James, Whipple understood that evil begins in giving way to emotions like envy, greed and vanity and, as such, often reveals itself as the attractive and glamorous alternative to what we perceive as being 'good' and therefore worthy of nothing but contempt.  Louise is everything the devoted, eager to please Ellen is not –– dark rather than fair, striking rather than plain, lewdly French rather than modestly and unprotestingly English.  She's also a woman incapable of thinking of anyone but herself, unwilling to spare a moment's thought for her parents, her employer, Ellen, Anne, Hugh or the man she so cunningly and, to his lasting regret, so efficiently seduces.  At no time does she express even the slightest remorse over what she's done to Ellen and Avery, suffer even the mildest pang of guilt over the catalytic role she's played in ruining what, until her arrival, had been their happy if unexciting marriage.  

In Louise's jaded eyes, Avery and Ellen are nothing more than ridiculous figures ripe for exploitation, as are her petit bourgeois shopkeeping parents, small people of small means whose nervous love for her is exceeded only by their constant fear of incurring her endlessly simmering wrath.  She doesn't care about destroying love because the shabby treatment she received at the hands of her former lover, Paul Devoisy, has robbed her of the capacity to feel anything but contempt, resentment and an all-consuming envy for those whom fate has chosen to bless with wealth, position and the power which, to her mind, is their natural concomitant.  What she wants is not Avery, but what she thinks, mistakenly, that a man like Avery is capable of giving her provided she nags him for it often enough and doesn't let him stray too far off the leash.  She's an extraordinary creation and a testament to Dorothy Whipple's uncanny ability to take what, in the hands of a less gifted, less emotionally insightful novelist, might only have been another standard love triangle plot and transform it into something that remains a thought-provoking and genuinely moving work of art.

The Writer:  Once described as 'the Jane Austen of the twentieth century' by her contemporary JB Priestley, Dorothy Whipple suffered the same fate as many of her fellow 'women novelists' whose work had been popular during the 1930s and 1940s only to find itself falling out of favour as the vogue for books featuring sex and scandal came to dominate publishing during the latter half of the 1950s and on into the 'swinging' 1960s.  Although she published nine popular and well-received novels between 1927 and 1953, it was as a writer of children's fiction that Whipple was best remembered until her work began to be reprinted by UK publisher Persephone Books in 1999.  She's now the company's most popular author, her books selling steadily and gaining her the new readership she was unjustly denied for so many years.

Whipple was born in the Lancashire city of Blackburn in 1893, one of a family of eight children sired by local architect William Stirrup.  Her family were what the English call 'middle class' (and the rest of us call rich) and she was encouraged to pursue her literary interests by her mother Ada, herself the daughter of a well-to-do man whose company specialized in providing the engraving and gilding for many of Blackburn's stateliest homes and public buildings.  Young Dorothy was also close to her grandmother and to the family servant, a harsh-talking but softhearted woman named Kate.  Hers was a happy and secure childhood, free from the financial worries which beset her less privileged contemporaries in what was known as 'Cotton Town' thanks to its abundance of highly profitable cotton mills.  She was educated privately and then at the city's high school before completing her education at the Convent of Notre Dame.  In 1905, at the age of twelve, she made her first appearance in print when a story she had written for a school assignment was published in the Blackburn Times.

Following the death of her friend (possibly her fiancee?) George Owen in the trenches of France in the very first week of World War One, twenty-one year old Miss Stirrup took a job as secretary to the city's current Director of Education.  His name was Henry Whipple and the fact that he was a widower who was also twenty-four years her senior did not deter her from falling in love with him and agreeing to become his wife in 1917.  Henry Whipple's job took him to Nottingham in 1925 and this was where the childless couple remained until 1939, when they moved to the East Midlands manufacturing town of Kettering.  Kettering would remain their home until Henry Whipple's death in 1958, when Dorothy returned once more to Blackburn.

Jonathan Cape Limited first UK edition, 1930
The English firm of Jonathon Cape published her first novel, Young Anne, in 1927.  It sold moderately well and was followed in 1930 by High Wages, a female variant on HG Wells' Kipps (1905) which told the tale of a lowly draper's assistant who aspires to the seemingly impossible goal of opening her own dress shop.  Whipple's second novel became a bestseller, as did every one of her succeeding novels –– Greenbanks (1932), They Knew Mr Knight (1934, filmed in 1946 starring Mervyn Johns and Nora Swinburne), The Priory (1939), They Were Sisters (1943, also filmed in 1945 starring Phyllis Calvert and James Mason), Because of the Lockwoods (1949) and Every Good Deed (1950).  Her final novel, Someone at a Distance, appeared in 1953 but failed to duplicate her previous success, being entirely ignored by the critics and a reading public who, as her editor put it, were all 'going mad for passion and action.'  

Having published The Tale of the Very Little Tortoise, her first book for children, in 1962, it was in this genre that Whipple worked until her death, in her beloved Blackburn, four years later.  She also published an autobiography, The Other Day, in 1950 and two volumes of short stories, the last of which, Wednesday and Other Stories, was described as 'illuminating and startling' by Anthony Burgess when it originally appeared in 1961.  But it was another critic, reviewing her first volume of stories in The Times Literary Supplement twenty years before that, who perhaps best described what made Dorothy Whipple such a clever and, for so many years, undervalued writer:  'Nobody is more shrewd than Mrs Whipple in hitting off domestic relations or the small foibles of everyday life.'  

Click HERE to visit the DOROTHY WHIPPLE page at the PERSEPHONE CLASSICS website.  In addition to publishing Someone at a Distance in both traditional and eBook formats, the company also publishes many of her other novels and a selection of her short fiction titled The Closed Door and Other Stories.

You can also click HERE to read reviews of Someone at a Distance and other novels by DOROTHY WHIPPLE on the entertaining Wordpress blog Book Snob.

You might also enjoy:
BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1949)
DAWN POWELL Come Back to Sorrento (1932)

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