Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

endpaper_someoneatadistance

Fiction — print. Persephone Books, 2008. Originally published 1953. 413 pgs. Library copy.

Whipple’s novel follows an English family as they grapple with the impact a young, French woman has on their lives. Avery owns his own publishing house in London but lives outside the city with his wife, Ellen, near the home of his demanding mother, known only as Mrs. North or Madame. Their daughter, Anne, attends a boarding school away from her family and her beloved horse, Roma, while their son debates whether to remain in military service or take a position at his father’s company.

Ellen is struggling to adjust to life after the war not that servants are scarce and she has no interest in entertaining for Avery’s work or other tasks that would require her to leave her beloved garden. She is devoted to her children, although her relationship with her daughter comes nowhere close to that between Avery and Anne, and the family’s neighbors presume that the Norths live an idyllic life.

Mrs. North, however, feels slighted and ignored by her daughter-in-law, son, and grandchildren and decides to hire a French girl to serve as her companion under the guise of improving her French. Louise arrives with an air of mysterious sophistication that immediately enamors Mrs. North, but her presence is off-putting to Mrs. North’s housekeeper and many in the North family. Unbeknownst to the Norths, Louise is still smarting from an affair with a man in a higher social class in her hometown and determined to return to her small, Catholic town with such success – wealth, a husband, etc – that the man will regret his decision to end things with her.

I expected to find such a simplistic, rather sexist plot to be a chafing experience yet I absolutely fell in love with Whipple’s novel and her style of writing. All of her characters — even those who play the role of femme fatale – are written with such compassion and finesse that it was easy to understand their motivations and reactions, and particular attention is paid to how expectations of how life should be can upend how life actually is. Louise plans for a life the rigid social classes of her community will not allow; Ellen plans for a life largely lost in the changing social fabric of post-war England.

Her story of family life post-World War II unfolds into a moving exploration of the fragility of relationships – those between husband and wife, father and daughter, business partners – when trust is removed from the equation. I was not expecting to find so much depth, so many moving moments within this tale, and I was utterly charmed by what I found within its pages.

Note: The endpaper (above) is a 1950s linen furnishing fabric by Ashley Havinden based on drawings done in the 1930s; it “combines a menacing feel with a hint of the domestic”. I read the novel as issued by Persephone Classics (right) so the endpaper in my copy was grey-scale.

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