Someone at a Distance was the very first Persephone book I bought. I devoured it in a couple of days, enthralled by the story that unfolded before me. I felt like I knew all of the characters; I was so involved in their lives and so concerned for their welfare that it was almost impossible to extract myself from their world. It had been too long to remember since I had read such a novel, that was written with such empathy and humanity and understanding. It was the beginning of a love affair with Whipple, whose entire works I have now read. However, I realised last month, when browsing my bookshelves for something to curl up with, that it has now been seven years since I closed the pages of Someone at a Distance. Surely it was time to rediscover its beauty, and what a joy it was to find it unchanged in its brilliance. I found myself making excuses to go to bed early just so that I could immerse myself in the world of the Norths. It is a rare talent indeed that can have this effect; with no creative writing class tricks necessary, Whipple’s simple sophistication weaves a tale that is destined to never leave those who read it. This is a special novel; one that you can return to again and again to remind yourself of the truly important things in life – and in literature.
Someone at a Distance is the story of a family whose ordinary, contented life is torn apart by the arrival of a French woman, whose bitterness at the hand life has dealt her breeds a resentment so strong that she is determined to take happiness from all those who dare to possess it. Avery and Ellen North are a middle class home counties couple, living in a large and comfortable house with a paddock for a horse and sufficient rooms to dust to require two dailies from the village. Avery is handsome and charming with a highly paid job as a publisher, but at heart he is a family man, with a special affection for his teenage daughter Anne, whose letters to him from her boarding school are his most treasured possession. Ellen’s life revolves around her home and her children. She adores gardening and loves the quiet, comfortable routines of her day; chatting with the dailies, greeting the postman, calling the fishmonger to discuss the lunch and sharing all of her news with Avery as they lie in bed of an evening. Neither Ellen nor Avery aspire to greatness; their happiness lies in one another and their children, and the all consuming business of the daily clockwork of ordinary life has swept them along with, as Jane Austen would say, very little to distress or vex them throughout the years of their married life.
That is, until Avery’s mother, lonely since the death of her husband and bitter at Ellen and Avery’s self sufficiency, advertises for a girl to keep her company. Louise Lanier, living with her shopkeeper parents in a stiflingly provincial French backwater, and recently heartbroken at being jilted by her lover for a richer and more socially acceptable partner, answers old Mrs North’s advert, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. Arriving at old Mrs North’s sumptuous house, she is impressed with her wealth, and even more impressed with her handsome son. She is disgusted with Ellen, who makes no effort to look attractive or beguiling, but yet has somehow still managed to snag such a catch as Avery, with seemingly no appreciation of how lucky she is. Louise can’t bear the happy family life she is forced to live amongst, and she soon sets her eyes on Avery as the prize she believes she deserves. With Ellen oblivious to the danger in her midst, Louise begins a campaign of seduction, and even Avery is surprised at how quickly he succumbs to Louise’s charms.
I had forgotten how much of the novel is not about Louise actually seducing Avery, or being with the Norths; much of the story is, unusually for Whipple, set in France (the only other novel of hers that is not wholly set in England is Because of the Lockwoods, which also has a section set in France). We are welcomed into the lives of Louise’s well meaning, simple hearted and loving parents, who keep the stationery shop in their small town. We see Louise’s peers; dowdy young women whose preoccupation is their husbands and homes, and we also see Paul, the only man Louise has ever really loved, who left her for a sweet and suitable woman whose happiness in marriage is a dagger to Louise’s heart. In this small town, where everyone knows one another and there is a clear social divide between the likes of the Laniers and those of the wealthier bourgeoisie, Louise is a fish out of water, looked down upon as the ‘stationer’s daughter’ and pitied for being still unmarried in her late twenties.
While Louise is undoubtedly a cold and selfish woman, she is also deeply disappointed and hurt by a life that has not delivered on its promises. With refined tastes and sensibilities, she has had few opportunities to meet likeminded people, and her frustration at being unable to have an outlet for her dreams has warped her personality, making her hard and bitter. Paul’s rejection of her thanks to her father’s lowly status is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He is really the ‘Someone at a Distance’ and the reason for the break up of Ellen and Avery’s comfortable existence hundreds of miles away. Louise, tormented by Paul and his wife’s happiness being thrust in her face at every opportunity, wants to show them and everyone else in her hometown that she can be a success; that she is better than the shopkeeper’s daughter they all dismiss her as. She wants recognition and she wants to be the object of jealousy rather than the one looking on with envy. The more I read of Louise’s life in France, the more I grew to understand and pity her. Rather than the villain I saw her as last time, I recognised in her the fear and sadness that afflicts many twenty somethings. Fear of loneliness, of insignificance, of failure; all of these are real, painful and incredibly damaging. They can often lead people to make foolish decisions and hurt other people, and rather than hating Louise, I felt sorry for her by the end. After all, she will never have what she wants. She will never know true happiness. I don’t think there’s anything more pitiable than that.
Of course I also felt sorry for Ellen, and there is a profundity in that moment when her perfectly safe, ordinary and uneventful life collapses beneath her. Only then does she realise how happy she was, and how happy she will never be again. Whipple so perfectly captures that devastation, that ripping of the fabric of life. So many of us think our lives are dull and are constantly striving for something more, without ever stopping to realise that actually we have everything we need to be happy; health, families, friends, homes, incomes, food, books, hobbies. In my opinion, the true joy of life is in its humdrum quality; that reassurance that tomorrow will come and be probably just as comfortably uneventful as today. We might hope and dream for more excitement, but we’d never want it at the cost of losing one of the keystones that underpins our entire existence, all of which we take completely for granted until they’re threatened. In Someone at a Distance, Whipple demonstrates how quickly and easily life can become a nightmare, and how much we rely on for our happiness is fallible, transitory and breakable. Ellen might create a new life for herself and Anne, and find a new kind of happiness in independence and her work, but she will never recapture that unthinking innocence of her married life with Avery. She will never be able to take anything for granted again, and that breaking of her trust in life is probably the true tragedy of the novel.
Avery is a pathetic character, and I don’t want to talk about him. He didn’t interest me; it was Louise who mainly captured my attention this time around. Many people who have discussed Someone at a Distance have called her a femme fatale, writing her off as a malevolent presence who will do anything to destroy others for her own gain. However, now I’ve read the book twice and have had a chance to mull over it, I can’t agree. There’s a reason why Whipple takes us to France so frequently; she wants to give us a balanced view. She wants us to understand Louise’s background and what she has experienced to make her who she has become. Louise is a twentieth century Madame Bovary, a woman who has been promised more than life can offer her, and who is looking for someone to blame for her resulting unhappiness. Yes, she causes a lot of damage, but she is also incredibly damaged herself, and Whipple’s sensitivity and skill as a novelist is demonstrated in her ability to make Louise such a three dimensional character.
This is an endlessly fascinating and absorbing novel, that gave me enormous amounts to think about, and had me swinging up and down in my sympathies throughout. If you haven’t read it, you must; on balance, I think it’s definitely Whipple’s most successful novel from a literary point of view, and is probably one of the finest portraits of the damage thwarted dreams can wreak that I have ever read. This is much more than the domestic drama it at first appears, and offers the reader a rich and thought provoking slice of twentieth century life. Not to be missed.