Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple has been read and reviewed by a lot of my favourite bloggers and I’ve always just skimmed the reviews as I knew I wanted to read the book myself – eventually, so I had no idea what it was about really. I did like it, it’s well written and observed but it was the second book on the trot that I’d read about the break up of a long marriage in which the only mistake the wife seems to have made was that she trusted her husband too much.

The North family consists of Ellen and her husband Avery and two children, Hugh and Anne. They’re well off and live in the suburbs, not far from London. Their problems begin when old Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother decides to advertise for a French companion. Mrs North feels that her son and his family don’t give her the time and consideration that she deserves, a paid companion who will pander to her every whim is exactly what she wants.

Ellen’s one flaw is that she doesn’t seem to realise that her husband is really a carbon copy of his mother. He’s selfish and immature and easy meat for an avaricious French woman. Louise might be younger than Ellen but she’s much more knowing where men are concerned and soon causes mayhem within the family.

This book was first published in 1953 at a time when divorce was beginning to be more common-place, but I found this to be a sad read and I did think to myself as I was reading it that I’d probably read a children’s Puffin book next, in an attempt to avoid the subject of divorce!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

This book was first published in 1953 although it has been recently reprinted by Persephone books. Mine is an old copy, one of my Stockbridge, Edinburgh finds.

I gather that there’s a bit of snobbishness going on about Whipple’s writing but I really enjoyed this one.

Old Mrs North is a wealthy widow with three grown up children, but she’s one of those mothers who thinks she should still be number one in their lives, her husband had spoiled her and consequently she always felt that she wasn’t getting enough attention. As she was always complaining and generally being disagreeable she wasn’t a joy to visit.

Mrs North decides that she wants company and she answers an advert in The Times: Young Frenchwoman desires to spend July, August in English home. French conversation. Light domestic duties… The upshot is that Louise Lanier, a woman whom nobody likes, not even her own parents, if they’re honest, comes over from France and ingratiates herself with Mrs North, it’s easily done, she just has to slag off young Mrs North.

Young Mrs Ellen North is a happy soul and her only real fault is that she is so nice and polite, and after 20 years of marriage to the selfish and spoiled Avery North she is being taken completely for granted by him. But she doesn’t mind as she enjoys doing all the housework and gardening and generally looking after everyone.

Louise is a gold-digger from the very beginning and I imagined her as looking like a young Wallis Simpson. Disaster looms!

Ellen is so sure of her husband that she has become a wee bit complacent and I just longed for her to forget her good manners and throw Louise out. Or as we say in Glasgow – Get tae France – when the more usual four letter F word is being avoided.

Anyway, if you haven’t already read this book you might want to give it a go. As I said at the beginning, Whipple seems to have been denigrated in a Guardian article at some point, apparently Virago wouldn’t publish her and I can’t see why not. So it’s a book about a woman who is happy as a housewife, well we can’t all be career women. In this book Ellen believes in God although Avery doesn’t and there is a bit of religious content, but not much. However I think that might have been enough for some people to take a dislike to Whipple’s writing. Most Brits just don’t feel comfortable when religion is brought into anything. My pet theory about that is that it’s a sort of genetic folk memory which makes us instinctively avoid the subject of religion, as in the past it could have got you into so much trouble. Like being burnt at the stake!