I am succumbing to the charm of the rediscovered women writers of Persephone Books publisher and bookshop. Last month I read Elisabeth De Waal’s The Exiles Return and this month I couldn’t resist reading another one so I could take part in the #PersephoneReadathon that I saw Jessie from the Dwell in Possibility blog is organising this year (for the third time, if I’m not mistaken).
I’d heard such good things about Dorothy Whipple, but I was warned that Someone at a Distance might be a hard read for me, given the breakdown of my own marriage. And it really was painful, because I couldn’t help comparing things with my own situation. I appreciated the observational skills and strong characterisations this author is capable of, but at the same time I was a little too judgemental of the characters.
This is the story of a happy family in the period following the Second World War. Rationing is still on, but easing a little, servants are hard to find, but the Norths, who live just outside London in a beautiful house and garden with stables for their daughter’s horse, seem to lead a charmed existence. Avery works in publishing and life has been easy for him. His father was rich and paved his way to a not entirely merited career path in publishing (his only skill being networking), his mother dotes on him, he has two charming and healthy children and his wife Ellen smoothes his everyday life and makes him the centre of her life and of the family. He does not seem to be a bad man, he really does love his wife and children, but his privilege makes him selfish and thoughtless. His wife, meanwhile, is aware of her privilege and considers herself lucky to have everyone back safe at home after the war.
She is so busy building the perfect home and family, she is so loving and trusting, that she fails to see the serpent sneaking into the garden of Eden, although she has the odd twinge or two of suspicion or dislike. The serpent comes in the shape of neat, well-dressed and coiffed Louise Lanier, daughter of a solid but unimaginative couple, bookshop owners (and pen repairers) in a small provincial town in France. Louise seeks to escape from the stifling boredom of her life and her failed romance with the local squire and takes up a position as ‘French conversation companion’ to the widowed Mrs North, Avery’s mother who constantly complains of neglect. Although she only stays there a short while (and does not impress the rest of the family), she is so good at winning the old lady’s affection that when the latter dies a short while later, she bequeathes a certain sum to Louise in her will. Louise decides to stay with the Norths, whose ‘mediocre’ happiness makes her slightly nauseous as well as envious, until she gets her hand on the money… but ends up getting her hand on much more than that.
Her sly seduction of Avery is both funny and excruciating to read. Even her characteristic perfume is designed to provoke and ruin, reminiscent of the Nicotiana, the tobacco plant, ready to choke everyone with her poisonous fumes. She is an excellent (if cynical) judge of character and she instantly spots the chinks in her opponents’ armours.
Surely Ellen was a little too good to be true? A little too kind, trusting and happy? An example of the well-known English hypocrisy, she supposed. Either that, or Ellen was what she was because she had never had reason to be otherwise. She had everything: a handsome husband, money, children, a charming house… But… she managed her husband badly. Ellen was unselfish, so in consequence, he was not. Ellen took responsibility for everything in the house and evidently for the children too; so he did not. He took Ellen for granted and that was, Louise considered, Ellen’s own fault. She was altogether too open and simple.
Ouch! I certainly felt that dart! And sure enough, Avery finds himself attracted to the French girl, even as he laughs at some of her ridiculous posturing. But he is quick to blame his wife for it, for after all ‘she shouldn’t take it for granted that he was as safe as all that.’ He is full of self-justification, because he believes he is so in control of things. And although this is a story written in the 1950s, it is a timeless tale indeed:
It was a long time since he had felt so vividly alive. He didn’t mean to go far. He was giving way to an attraction, letting himselve be caught in a lazy, amused way. Although he felt mean to Ellen, he was allowing himself a bit of latitude. Surely after twenty years of fidelity a man… Well, anyway, what did it matter?
So the inevitable happens. Avery and Louise get caught in a compromising position on the living room sofa, by his wife and (even worse) his horrified daughter Anne. He flounces off like a spoilt toddler and announces he wants a divorce, although he manages to tell himself the story that he is forced to do so because his wife doesn’t want him back, he is humiliated in front of his children and he has to protect Louise’s honour. In other words, he manages to blame everybody but himself for his predicament and takes to drink.
However, for Ellen, the shock, though devastating, has a liberating effect as well. The scales have fallen from her eyes:
Men liked youth in women. They felt entitled to it… Unless you behave like the favourite of the harem, your husband goes off with a woman who does… Let him!.. Even if it had occurred to me to work at fascinating him, I couldn’t have done it. I treated him like a partner, someone as responsible as I am for our marriage, but he walks out half-way through as if it were no more than a film show he was tired of.
The conflicting emotions of an abandoned woman are so well described: the pride, the self-pity, the anger, the sadness, the concern for her children’s emotions, the feeling that her once beloved house is now dying, and, on occasion, passive resignation.
She wondered if she would ever be able to take pleasure in things for themselves. For twenty years she had evidently taken pleasure in things so that she could use them for her husband and children, pass them on to them in the way of beauty or food or comfort… Flowers, trees, the house, the garden, other people, everything had delighted her while she could look at them from the standpoint of personal happiness. Now they didn’t mean anything.
Nevertheless, she persists, she finds a solution, she encounters much gentleness and understanding from the people around her, while her ex-husband descends into a personal hell of his own making. If there was anything I disliked about this book, it was the rather unsatisfactory, almost fairytale resolution, with the baddies get their come-uppance. Louise’s complicated plan of revenge in her home town doesn’t quite work out, Avery is not happy with Louise and shows genuine remorse for what he has done, the children are entirely on their mother’s side and blame their father for everything, and yet Ellen might find it in her heart to forgive him at some point in the future…
I wanted to tell Ellen: ‘You’re better off without him!’ Perhaps it’s because my own experience has shown things to be far more complicated than that, and that the bad often does go unpunished and unrepentant. Yet I was sad to hear that this, Dorothy Whipple’s last novel, never received any reviews. It had become unfashionable for its time, I suppose.
My first but certainly not my last Dorothy Whipple. This has the potential to become one of my favourite Persephones, but yes, I will read more, more, more Persephone Books!