Persephone Book No.3: Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.

Warning: The review below may well give away quite a bit about the book so you may not want to read on too much further if you haven’t read the book yet…

Someone at a Distance is quite different from William and Mariana, which involve young, central characters and have plots which follow their development as individuals. Someone at a Distance is a novel about family life, about a small world that is torn apart by the arrival of an outsider.

The scenario – a middle-aged married couple with children, an attractive, younger woman comes along and the husband has an affair – is relatively simple (Dorothy Whipple herself described it as ‘a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage’). But the way the scenario plays itself out is gripping. Like the opening scenes in a horror film, the early chapters of the book give a glimpse of a dark figure lurking on the sidelines while the main characters remain blissfully unaware of the danger. The book captures the changing psychological states of the characters and the flux of raw, underlying emotions, beneath some of the most simple, everyday scenes.

'Her scent stole across the room.... The tobacco plants sent out their evening fragrance... that's what your scent is... The Nicotiana - the tobacco plant... Avery felt himself for one strange moment enveloped in her scent. He seemed to be fighting it off like fumes....'

‘Her scent stole across the room…. The tobacco plants sent out their evening fragrance… that’s what your scent is… The Nicotiana – the tobacco plant… Avery felt himself for one strange moment enveloped in her scent. He seemed to be fighting it off like fumes….’

Louise, with her ‘clear-cut, almost exquisite finish’ could almost be Madame Bovary re-incarnated (and indeed her identification with Emma Bovary is made explicit when she reads to Mrs North from that novel). Like Emma Bovary, she is driven by the need to find a way out of the ‘excruciating boredom’ of provincial life. She does not set out to pursue Avery from the outset, she adapts to the situation as she goes along. On her second stay at the Cedars, there is the first indication of an attraction between her and Avery. But she nevertheless returns home and announces to her parents that she will marry the ‘horribly provincial’ Charles Bovary-esque Pharmacien, Andre Petit. Then chance cuts in: she changes tack when, the very next day, a letter arrives from Avery announcing Mrs North’s death and the legacy of £1,000. So she returns and installs herself at Netherfold where ‘gradually, the French scent stole under her door faintly permeating the atmosphere changing it, establishing her presence’.

It is a series of small things that lead events to take the course that they do. As the author notes, ‘there are times in our lives when the slightest move is dangerous’. Avery brings home a box of marron glaces for Louise. The gift becomes a secret between them because Ellen is, by chance, out, and when she arrives back, Louise takes the gift to her room. It is clear that Avery doesn’t realise quite what he is doing, but at this point, he becomes somehow committed.

Louise has ‘no particular design’. She is attracted to Avery and, as an attractive woman, feels entitled to his attentions. She is ‘ready to follow any advantage that was offered’, she is ‘casting about’. Once she has Avery’s attentions, she has control and is ‘in her element’ as the situation unfolds. She has honed her skills of deception in her earlier relationship with Paul and now she is excited to be ‘back in the game': it is what makes her feel ‘truly alive’. And she relishes this situation even more than her previous relationship with Paul because this time, ‘the power was all herself’. Her motivations for ‘the annexation’ of Avery are about avenging herself on Paul and restoring her confidence in herself. As when she successfully concealed her relationship with Paul from the people of Avigny, she despises those that she can easily fool. Ellen ‘didn’t deserve what she had if she couldn’t keep it.’ Her envy of what others have is part of it: envy of Paul and Germaine, of Avery and Ellen, of wealth, of their ‘mediocre happiness’. When Avery and Ellen go to visit Anne at school, Louise goes through their things. She enters their sunlit room where ‘all was serene, charming’ and is gripped by ‘a sudden violent wish to upset it all.’ ‘Why must she always be the one on the outside?’ she asks herself. She is at a distance, from other people, from the world she looks into. (For other thoughts on the use of ‘at a distance’ in the title – see the questions below.)

Louise is also driven by a bitterness about men and the fact that a woman like her must rely on them to get on in the world. During her time at Netherfold, she briefly seeks to build a ‘feminine partnership’ with Ellen in order to isolate Avery and tries ‘to strengthen Ellen’s hand by putting into it some of the cards she herself considered essential to the feminine game’. Her bitterness about the power of men is deep-seated. When Avery tells her to go home, she is infuriated because he is handsome, and is in a position of strength because of his wealth and his ‘maleness’. When she hears that Paul’s wife, Germaine, is expecting a child, her reaction is equally strong: ‘men had everything – she hated men, but unfortunately it was through them that women had to get what they wanted, at any rate, women like herself.’

Avery is good-looking and likeable with an air of indolent well-being. He gives way to his attraction to Louise ‘in a lazy amused way’, assuming that he has control over the situation. But it becomes all too apparent that he doesn’t know his own nature. He has an obsessive streak which surfaced in his pursuit of Ellen before they married and which resurfaces again in his relationship with Louise and when he leaves Ellen. There is ‘excess’ in his nature and it is an ‘excessive pride’ that prevents him from returning. There are rare moments when a softer side of him is apparent: Ellen describes a moment by her bedside after the birth of their first child when he was ‘so absolutely himself, so much hers… shorn of minor vanities and petulances’. She also is touched by his devotion to Anne. When they visit Anne at school, she ‘feels an intensification of her constant everyday love for Avery’ because he ‘gave himself entirely to being Anne’s father and ‘he was happy in a deep humble way’. This ‘knitted them together, indissolubly, or so it seemed’.. Indeed, their unity as a couple seems to derive largely from their children, particularly Anne: ‘Anne’s name had only to come up for them to chime together like a pair of perfectly synchronised clocks’.

Ellen, on Louise’s analysis, is too good to be true, too trusting, too happy. She is Louise’s opposite: slight, fair, with no idea at all of trying to make an impression, and is perfectly content ‘looking after things’. Surprisingly, Louise quite likes her but her main criticism of her is that ‘she managed her husband badly – she was unselfish therefore he was not. He took her for granted. She was altogether too open and simple. A woman needed art and subtlety, Ellen had neither.’ Earlier on, another outsider, John Bennett, has observed Ellen’s selfless running around after her family, and Avery’s indolence, and questioned whether Avery really appreciates her. As the distance grows between her and Avery, Ellen becomes acutely aware of the ‘mutual and unique confidence’ that had previously existed between them and realises that she had never acted without him. When she confronts Louise without discussing it with Avery, she feels as if she is ‘breaking one of the countless Lilliputian bonds that bound her’ to him. When Avery leaves, though she finds a way of coping, it is  clear that its not easy for a woman in her position suddenly to have to fend for herself. As Mrs Beard says to her: ‘”you know how hard money is to come by for women like us? We’re not the new sort of women, with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best part of our lives keeping house for our husbands. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.’

'Mummy,' she said in amazement. 'Your hands are hard... just like... cuttle-fish... You couldn't possibly like washing-up and cleaning pans and doing fires...?' 'Well,' said Ellen, considering it, 'I don't actually like doing those things, I suppose, but it's all part of looking after the house and all of you, and that I do most certainly enjoy.'

‘Mummy,’ she said in amazement. ‘Your hands are hard… just like… cuttle-fish… You couldn’t possibly like washing-up and cleaning pans and doing fires…?’ ‘Well,’ said Ellen, considering it, ‘I don’t actually like doing those things, I suppose, but it’s all part of looking after the house and all of you, and that I do most certainly enjoy.’

There are a number of robust subsidiary characters in the novel, many of whom, in contrast to Louise, embody a sort of basic human decency: old Mrs North’s housekeeper, Miss Daley; Miss Beldon, Anne’s headmistress; Miss Beasley (who reveals that she also has a husband who left her); Louise’s ‘large, baggy’ parents; Mrs Brockington and even the rough-speaking Mrs Beard at Somerton. Most of the characters live within small communities: the village where Ellen and Avery live and Louise’s provincial home-town in France.

In Amigny, Monsieur Lanier opens the shutters each morning and greets fellow shopkeepers. Customers come and go in the shop and bring new gossip with them. Within this community, social position matters a great deal: it is why Louise cannot marry Paul, why Madame Lanier is so pleased when Germaine, Paul’s wife, invites Louise to host a stall at the town’s charity fete and why Louise’s inheritance is so gratifying to her parents – it gives her credit in the eyes of their fellow townsfolk. The descriptions of the Lanier’s routines and mannerisms make them very alive and sympathetic as characters: they tear up bread and throw it into their morning coffee where it bobs ‘like ducks on a pond’ and eat with great appetite wielding their ‘large leaden spoons’. Both parents defer to and even fear Louise, with her air of worldly sophistication. There is considerable poignancy in many of the scenes where the Laniers are altogether, particularly the scene where Louise’s parents anxiously await her arrival from Paris, standing on a dark, windswept station platform. Both parents are anxious to satisfy their daughter and are very conscious of how unsatisfactory they are in her eyes.

Its time I was taking the shutters down.' Next door, Bonnet had come out to take the shutters from his shoe-shop. 'Louise is coming home next week,' called Monsieur Lanier... At the end of the street, the sycamore tree, thinly leafed in gold, drooped over the old, wrought-iron gate of the Archev, the whole as delicate as a drawing in Indian ink. He wondered what England was like and if she saw anything more beautiful than she could see here in her native town. Yet she despised Amigny and all it offered. He knew it and sighed.

Its time I was taking the shutters down.’ Next door, Bonnet had come out to take the shutters from his shoe-shop. ‘Louise is coming home next week,’ called Monsieur Lanier… At the end of the street, the sycamore tree, thinly leafed in gold, drooped over the old, wrought-iron gate of the Archev, the whole as delicate as a drawing in Indian ink. He wondered what England was like and if she saw anything more beautiful than she could see here in her native town. Yet she despised Amigny and all it offered. He knew it and sighed.

Ellen engages very little with the community in which she lives, because ‘her family was enough for her’. Nevertheless, there are descriptions of incidental characters here and there which give a flavour of village life: the cheerful ticket collector at the station, the one that Ellen and Anne both like; Ted Banks, the postman, with whom Ellen compares gardening notes. Their world is small and serene and cherished all the more by Ellen because of the dislocation war brought to their lives in the recent past. After Avery’s departure, Ellen finds refuge in another small community, at Somerton, which is also the place that she and her children found refuge during the war.

There is a sense in which Ellen loses and then regains her serene world as the novel progresses and, indeed, despite the emotional tension throughout the novel, all three of the central characters are happier when it comes to an end: Avery because he knows that Ellen, ‘the harmony of his life’, has forgiven him; Louise because she is calculating how she will manoeuvre herself out of her marriage to Avery with the maximum possible advantage to herself; and Ellen because she has learned to accept what life brings and because she knows that Avery is ‘restored’ to her.

Questions

  • Who is to blame for what happens? Louise? Paul? Avery? Ellen?
  • In the novel, Ellen reminds Anne that, ‘there is as much difference between people in France as there is in England.’  How significant is the fact that Louise is French?
  • How do you interpret the title of the novel? A fairly lofty inspiration has been suggested: ‘Spooky action at a distance’ is a phrase Einstein used in the 1930s to describe a particular notion in physics: quantum entanglements. This refers to objects being entangled at a very basic level so that if you separate the objects, even by vast distances, they still act as one object or continue to influence each other. Einstein aside, there are various ways in which various characters could be said to be ‘at a distance’ or acting ‘at a distance’ in the novel e.g. Paul’s influence on Louise from distant Amigny; distance between Avery and Ellen; Louise who feels her self to be on the outside looking into other people’s Ellen and Avery’s world.
  • J. B. Priestley referred to Dorothy Whipple as ‘the Jane Austen of the 20th century’. In a newspaper interview, Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, referred to choosing whether or not a novel merited re-publication as a Virago Classic on the basis of ‘the Whipple line’, the lower limit of quality-writing below which they would not deem a novel worthy of re-publication. How do you feel Dorothy Whipple ranks compared to other female novelists?

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