A few years ago, in my early giddy delight at having discovered Persephone Books, I got around to dipping my toe into the waters of Dorothy Whipple's work. Sadly, the book I started with (I was also in the grip of a major obsession with World War II novels) was They Were Sisters (1943), a bleak little novel about sisters coping with the domestic violence suffered by one of them. I read about half of it, decided it was just a little TOO soap-opera-ish for me, and quietly returned it to the library. It wasn't until we were in London late last year and I came across Someone at a Distance in an Oxfam shop for the equivalent of about $4 that I decided to give Whipple another whirl. (And even at that, you can see it's taken me some months to get around to it.)
In this case, I'm thankful that I always torment myself when I dislike a writer so many kindred spirits are reading and enjoying (Elizabeth Jenkins, for example, on whom I've now, after much self-flagellation, given up...). I always assume there must be something wrong with ME if I don't like them.
True, this novel, too, might almost be seen as a bleak, soap opera-ish little novel. It follows the breakup of a happy marriage--a happy family, in fact--as a result of the husband/father's infidelity with a loathsome young French girl who has been his elderly mother's companion, and on his wife's efforts to rebuild her life in the aftermath. It could easily have been a soap opera, but for the astonishing perceptiveness of Whipple's insights into the characters and their motivations, which are so startling and so true-to-life that I started feeling like I must never have really read about infidelity and heartbreak before. Ridiculous, of course, and yet that's how fresh the entire novel seemed to me.
Looking at some of the passages I marked in the book, it's hard to find a short quote that really sums up Whipple's subtlety. Her prose is simple and forthright. It's not as though she flies off into eloquent reveries. Her power is in the mundane details, the revealing observations tossed out as if they are nothing, such as this one early on, when Ellen is driving:
‘Why will they ride four abreast?’ she asked, avoiding the bare legs of a girl-cyclist, who wobbled, then bit her lip with such smiling apology that Ellen’s irritation vanished and, with perfect good humour, she smiled back.We get a genuine glimpse of Ellen's character in just a couple of lines--she is perhaps easily annoyed, at least when under stress, but is also easily forgiving. And a short while later we get a similar sketch of the loathsome young French girl (sorry, but I do enjoy calling her that!), whose name is Louise:
The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.Although even with the loathsome French girl, we are given a way to understand her behavior. She has had her heart broken by a wealthier boy who flirted with her and perhaps seduced her, before sauntering off to marry a woman of his own class. Loathsome she may be, but Whipple doesn't neglect to show us why and how she came to be that.
In fact, another thing that fascinated me with Whipple in this novel is her ability to bring so many characters to life. My favorite example of a brilliantly overinclusive and overly generous novel has always been Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide-and-Seek, in which, at one point, even a young couple waiting for a few minutes on a park bench near the heroine are sketched out in vivid detail, as if Taylor can't bear to neglect even the extras in her scenes, but must carefully give them all their dignity and their moment to shine.
Something similar happens in Someone at a Distance, in which we meet and seem to get to know Avery and Ellen; their children Hugh and Anne; Avery's mother and her devoted housekeeper Miss Daley, who is intentionally humiliated by Louise; Miss Beasley and Miss Pretty, Ellen's own "help," who really aren't terribly helpful; Louise's parents Monsieur and Madame Lanier, attempting to love their daughter but obviously happier when she leaves them; Louise's former lover who broke her heart and his charming and likeable wife, who knows nothing of the affair; and Avery's partner in his publishing business, whose wife left him but whom he never divorced--not to mention a full cast of elderly women at Somerton House, a sort of hotel/retirement home where Ellen stayed sometimes during the war, and the gruffly dominating Miss Beard, who runs it ("Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance"), plus one or two of Anne's teachers at school thrown in for good measure.
It's almost dizzying at times, and yet it's totally appropriate and fitting, because this is the story of a family's world, of all the people who come into it and influence it, and all the repercussions that their tragedy has on those around them--even a neighbor we only glimpse once, who is annoyed when Ellen, her world crumbling, refuses an invitation to coffee!
The breakup of Avery and Ellen's happy marriage--and Whipple shows us enough, in her subtle way, for us to know just how enduringly happy it has been--is almost unbearable at times. I'm not a particularly weepy reader, I'll tell you, but there were times... By focusing on the mundane effects, the daily details and habits, the impacts the turmoil has on the most basic day-to-day activities, Whipple creates so much more power and depth, and the sense of aching loss her characters feel, than if she had focused on screaming matches or sobbing fits.
Occasionally, Whipple manages to work in some bittersweet humor. Here, Miss Beasley has confessed to being an abandoned wife herself:
‘Look at me,’ said Miss Beasley, throwing out both hands, potato in one, knife in the other, and standing proudly for inspection with her stringy neck and sparse hair. ‘Look at me. I’ve not done so bad, have I?’
Ellen's healing and rebuilding of her life forms much of the second half of the novel, and I was honestly riveted by it, though I won't go into it here for fear of spoiling it. So, just one more quote of a beautiful passage. This is just before Avery's infidelity occurs, when Ellen, sensing Louise's fundamental loathsomeness, ponders how to ship her off (she has already attempted and failed to seduce Hugh, their son). Ellen's uncertainties seem to me to contain striking observations about marriage:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance.
For twenty years, Ellen had been so used to acting with Avery, never without him, that she had waited for him to agree that something must be done about Louise. Suddenly, she knew that if it was to be done, she must do it herself and without telling him.
It was a momentous decision for her to come to. She didn’t like making it at all. She felt she was breaking one of the countless Lilliputian bonds that bound her.Rather poetically, here, just pages before Hugh's betrayal, it is Ellen who is beginning to learn to break away.
After falling in love with Someone at a Distance, I had to go ahead and nab a library copy of the other Whipple novel I always meant to read, The Priory (1939). I've had in my notes for ages that the Provincial Lady recommends it to a friend as the perfect wartime comfort reading.
I have to admit that I found The Priory to be completely compulsive reading too. It was perhaps not quite, for me, up to a comparison with Someone at a Distance, but then it drives me crazy when other people compare one of an author's books to another, since whichever one you read first, and with which you have your first "wow I love this writer" kind of epiphany, will probably always stand as a "best" for you. So that may be all it was in this case too. I just recall thinking on a couple of occasions, in Whipple's portrayal of another happy marriage (apparently a favorite theme for her), "Okay, enough with the handwringing melodrama."
But anyway, it's a great read, handwringing melodrama or not, and I have just one particularly wonderful quote to share (probably this passage jumps out at everyone who reads it--particularly anyone who's read Ruth Adam's A Woman's Place, with its discussions of the shifting roles and conflicts facing women in the shift from peacetime to wartime):
People say: “Oh, it’s not like that for girls now.” But it is, and it’s going to be more like it than ever, it seems to me. According to these papers it is. Women are being pushed back into homes and told to have more babies. They’re being told to make themselves helpless. Men are arming like mad, but women are expected to disarm, and make themselves move vulnerable than they already are by nature. No women is going to choose a time like this to have a baby in. You can’t run very fast for a bomb-proof shelter if you have a baby inside you, and a bomb-proof shelter is not the place you would choose to deliver it in. No protection against gas is provided for children under three, this paper says, so presumably the baby you have laboured to bring into the world must die if there is a gas attack.