I am sleepy today because last night I couldn’t put down Dorothy Whipple’s marvelous Someone at a Distance until I’d finished it. Why isn’t this writer better known and more widely read? To be sure, this novel has the flavor of the past; it lacks any contemporary literary tricks, and it’s subject, the failure of a marriage, is hardly edgy. But the depth of psychological understanding that Whipple brings to the characterizations feels modern and relatable. It’s been a good while since I whipped through a 400+ page book in two or three sittings because the story spun along effortlessly to a satisfying, but not really predictable, conclusion. Persephone has done so good in reissuing this novel.
Someone at a Distance has a fairly simple plot: a very happily married couple with two children are brought to divorce by the husband’s infatuation with a young French woman whom they hire to provide companionship to his aging mother, and the wife as to find a way to support herself and her children alone. The French woman, Louise, has her own motivations for leaving her small town and living for months on end with an elderly lady — and none of them nice. She is seeking a childish revenge on a man she was in love with who ended their affair to marry a woman of a more suitable social class than Louise. She wants to return to her hometown with money, fine clothes, a handsome (if miserable) husband and show her former lover, and the rest of the provincial folk, just how fine she is now.
Louise is an extreme character — truly unlikable. At first, I found her selfish, cold, calculating nature to be almost too fictional in its two-dimensionality. To be sure, she is not a character I ever ended up sympathizing with, but after a while I began to understand her motivation, selfish as it was, and it gave her a bit more depth. Sometimes I also wondered how much her characterization was based on ugly French stereotypes, and I found that somewhat troubling. Still, as one of the most deliciously detestable character I have encountered in a book in a long time, she was fascinating and easily the reason the story worked so well.
Louise aside, there are a raft of interesting characters in this book, many of whom are older women who work (or worked) and run schools, teach, care take, and so forth. Some are too old for any of it, but all these women are entirely sympathetic and wise to the nuances and vagaries of relationships. I loved all the old ladies and the way they went from being a supporting cast to the family to being the supportive cast. The husband is not the one-sided villain you’d expect him to be, though that doesn’t mean his behavior is exempt from reproach. Interestingly, the reproach is mostly his own, and the choices he makes as a result are even sadder for his wife and children.
I don’t want to give any spoilers, but the conclusion of the novel was unexpectedly complex. I wish I knew someone who’d read it to chat with about the outcome of the relationship of the children with their father, and the accepting, if not almost sanguine way, the mother views it. Published in the early 1950s, the novel predates the huge uptick in the divorce rate in the US which doesn’t come until the 70s. I think the trend is roughly similar in the UK where the book is based. So perhaps the black/white conclusion to the father/child relationships is a result of the relatively uncommon social experience of divorce. But Whipple was very imaginative with the mother’s understanding of her own relationship to her ex-husband, so it doesn’t exactly follow. I suppose this all sounds extremely vague since I am trying to discuss what happened without saying what happened.
I am really looking forward to my third Persephone next month, but think that Someone at a Distance is going to be a hard act to follow. I’m also a bit rueful that I didn’t slot another Dorothy Whipple in my subscription. I guess that just means I’ll have to do it again sometime.