Thursday, 17 September 2009

Book Review - Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Autumn is my favourite time of year for many reasons. I love the crack and sparkle of bonfires, the smell of woodsmoke, the crunch of leaves underfoot, frosty mornings and conkers. I love walking through London and looking in at the activity through the warm, lit windows. Autumn is the season of red, gold, brown, green and orange; my favourite pallette. But, ultimately, autumn is the perfect season for reading as I can huddle on my sofa under jumpers and blankets with a big mug of tea, the lamp on and the cold outside. It is the season for cosy reading and there are no better books for hours of cosy reading than those written by Dorothy Whipple.

One of my favourite novels by Whipple is Someone at a Distance; beautifully published by the wonderful Persephone Books. Someone at a Distance follows the North family as their world is spun by the arrival of Mademoiselle Louise Lanier, a young and beautiful French woman who has been employed by Ellen North's Mother in Law as a companion.

Ellen North is married to Avery, they have two children, Hugh and Anne. They live in a beautiful house in a quaint English village. Ellen manages the household and raises the children, Avery goes and works hard to earn the money to maintain the North's happy home. Ellen is that rare and unfashioable woman, a very happy housewife. Her love for Avery is shining and constant, her children are well mannered, happy and joyful. Ellen is grateful for her home and family and then Avery's head is turned.

The girl was so beautifully finished: the cool suit, the white Juliet cap on the smooth dark hair, the white lawn blouse - all exactly right.

Louise is youthful and vain, she takes endless care of her appearance and she hasn't had two children and doesn't know the tiredness resulting from managing a family. Ultimately, she is sexy and flirtatious. Avery is bored and Louise is there to entertain him when Ellen is busy in the kitchen or garden or at the shops. Louise plays a skilful game and Ellen finds herself out of her depth.

As Avery succumbs to the charms of Louise, the family is torn apart. Ellen is steadfast and resolutely believes that her husband will do the right thing and put his family first. Avery is weak, indecisive and selfish. He finds himself carried along by the excitement that Louise promises before thinking through any consequences. Before long his actions are irrevocable and he has to face up to the choices he has made. It is a stark realisation indeed for him to consider what he has lost. As Ellen slowly builds a new life her love for Avery remains constant.

Dorothy Whipple's final novel was published in 1952 and is a gripping account of a middle-aged man's folly and the repurcussions that occur. Whipple's novel is a searing examination of human frailty and there is a distinct moral message as Avery North and Louise Lanier get their come-uppance. But overriding this, is a sense of hope. Hope for Ellen, a genuinely good woman whose tale has been told so many times by so many people throughout time. But it is Dorothy Whipple who recounts this tale with insight, honesty and clarity which combine to create a unique portrayal of a deceived wife and foolish husband.

The endpapers, pictured above, borrow from the autumnal pallette and this is absolutely a book to read when the rain is pattering on the window, the fire is glowing, the cat is asleep and the hot cup of tea warms your heart as Ellen learns that,

Life is like the sea, sometimes you are in the trough of the wave, sometimes on the crest. When you are in the trough, you wait for the crest, and always, trough or crest, a mysterious tide bears you forward to an unseen, but certain shore.


  1. You have definitely inspired me to read it!

    Abs x

  2. I think Someone at a Distance is my favourite Whipple so far, though The Priory is almost neck and neck with it!

    You are so right with her being a perfect Autumnal can get lost in her beautifully drawn worlds while you are cosy on the sofa and the rain beats down outside. Can't wait for High Wages!

  3. That was a review to entice, I am making a list of persephone books to try and I have just added Someone at a Distance. I envy you going into autum, I love the cool seasons. Our spring is already rather warm and that does not bode well for summer, another scorching summer I fear.

  4. Wonderful review! I loved this book, and plan to post a review next week. Will definitely be reading more Whipple...any recommendations?

  5. Lovely review. Your opening paragraph is so evocative; I too love an Autumn pallette and love to dress in burnt orange, chicory browns, and olive greens, the colour of fallen leaves.

    Someone at a Distance is so raw. The only other Whipple I have read so far is They Were Sisters, which was also poignant, but will read them all in time. Thank goodness for Persephone.

  6. JoAnn - I agree with Rachel that Dorothy Whipple's The Priory is almost neck and neck.

    Book Pusher - we haven't had a real summer for so long so you have too much heat and we have too much cold!

    Paperback reader - A fellow autumnal dresser, fab! They Were Sisters made me really tense - I am under the impression that it is unusual for a novel of that time to examine such abusive relationships. Not sure if I am right in thinking this. Another great book from both Whipple and Persephone!

  7. Not only has your review moved Whipple up my order list for Persephone, but your evocation of autumn has me giddy. Autumn is easily my favorite season. Alas, here in Washington DC we are still dealing with summer, but not for too much longer.

  8. I read this book last spring and the characters are still with me. I find myself picturing scenes in the book and oh what I wouldn't give to say a few words to Louise! To evoke those feelings I'd say that Dorothy Whipple is quite the outstanding author.

  9. I'm so happy to have recently discovered your blog! I have an award for you...

  10. Thomas - I hope you enjoy both the Washington DC autumn and Whipple's novels. Another great one is 'They Knew Mr Knight'.

    Darlene - I have a lot to say to Louise as well! And Avery! grrr. Dorothy Whipple is outstanding and I am so grateful to Persephone Books for re-establishing her in the reading community.

    JoAnn - thank you so, so much for the award!