Welcome to this my blog - a record of my life with books and pictures



Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Someone at a distance: the book that nearly broke my heart

I started reading this book on the district line in snatched moments; I took it to Rome with me and read a bit there and on the plane. I am not sure when it was that this book started to grip me. At first I was thinking – ok so this is a domestic novel; like lots of Persephones it is almost achingly well written; there is a strong sense of the 1950s; it is very English; it is very restrained.

But somehow, somewhere, it transformed into a heart breaking work of staggering understated power. I cannot believe that when it was published it did not get a single review. It really did nearly break my heart. It also took me rather by surprise.

Its focus is the marriage of Ellen and Avery, an upper middle class, middle aged couple of the Home Counties in the early 1950s. It tells you straight on the back cover, and I am not really giving anything away when I say that their comfortable life is pretty much destroyed by the arrival of Louise; a French lady’s companion. Louise is a sort of serpent character. She is a truly horrible, self serving piece of bitterness and I can’t imagine that she has many fans amongst the reading public. Through her extraordinary personality she provides a relief, against which Avery and Ellen’s marriage is destroyed and then re-made in a tiny way.

Marriage as an idea emerges from the novel in an odd way. I think that Dorothy Whipple must have rather believed in it, without romanticising it at all. In the end, the marriage is destroyed but the underlying relationship is still there, albeit damaged. Whipple manages to keep in focus the true happiness of youth and at the same time, the rubble of separation. This is never clearer than in the following description of old ladies in a rest home: “In the dining room, where the shutters were closed against the night and the lamps on the tables lit under rosy shades, the old ladies waited to be served. They had read the paper, but Ellen couldn’t have come into gentler company. There was no avid curiosity, no malicious speculation, no self congratulation that such a thing couldn’t happen to them, as there might have been amongst younger women. These women were old, time had softened them, they had learnt something from loss, helplessness, loneliness; they knew that almost anything can happen to anybody. They were kinder than when they were young”.

I wonder if women like Ellen still exist? There were moments when I thought her rather timeless, and saw shades of people I know in her incredible reserve. At other times I thought – you know Ellen, there are times for dignity and times for fighting and if you want your husband back, however awful he has been, you should run after him. That however, would not have been “Ellen” at all. She is a real period piece. She is not a doormat; she is an old fashioned wife. As the character Mrs Beard memorably says to Ellen: “We’re not the new sort of women, with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. We’re ordinary women, who married to young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands”.

Other opinions can be found at A Striped Armchair, Stuck in a book and Fig and Thistle. The pictures are the Persephone Classic edition, the Persephone endpaper and the author.

23 comments:

  1. Oh this is one of my favourite Persephones! And you're right; Louise is truly despicable but when most authors try to justify the bad characters, it is rather refreshing that she is left to just be. Not to mention brave of Dorothy Whipple.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love that quote - these women were basically professional wives, and unqualified to do anything else. Ellen's bravery and ability to carry on shows how strong she really was, as she'd never been taught to even contemplate a life without a husband and a stable home environment in it. This book is incredible - Dorothy Whipple is incredible - I am so glad you loved it! Now on to the other Whipples!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I too loved this novel -- and recently read Whipple's They Knew Mr Knight, which despite its rather unpromising title is another cracker. Thanks, and welcome back!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great review. I have this in my TBR pile and it looked really special to me. Now I know it is!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I definitely plan on reading Dorothy Whipple as soon as I FIND a book by her! She's distressingly hard to find in Midwestern America, but I keep hoping. Great review- I both love and hate the quote you shared.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Welcome back! I love Persephone books but haven't read this one yet. Your review has me very intrigued!

    ReplyDelete
  7. I got this for my secret santa and I have been looking forward to reading it. I might pick it up on holiday nect month.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Lovely review, Hannah! I think it would be near impossible to dislike this novel - it's been 7 years since I read it now, but I was so impressed. We read it at my book group - an hour's discussion could be had over who the 'someone at a distance' is! For my money, I say Paul (is that his name? Louise's beau.)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Keeping my eye out for Dorothy Whipple's novels to make their way to Korea.

    ReplyDelete
  10. When I bought my last Persephone, I couldn't quite decide between Laski's To Bed With Grand Music and Whipple's Someone At A Distance. I eventually went with the former, and it's so strange but the protagonist of that book (Deborah) is the antithesis of what Ellen seems to be - at no point could you call her the "old-fashioned wife".

    This book sounds fantastic, and my next Persephone will probably be a Whipple (although I'd love to read another Laski as well).

    Thanks for an amazing review.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This book sounds a fantastic read and your review is excellent. I think that it will be 'my kind of book'. I shall order it!!
    Thank you for bringing it to light.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great review, I loved this book and lent it to my mum and she loved it too!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I loved what you had to say about this book. I am anxious to begin my copy which was recently acquired.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Do you know the movie "Jerry McGuire?" The scene where Renee Zellwegger tells Tom Cruise, after he's made this wonderful plea trying to woo her back, "You had me at hello?" That's how I feel about this review! You had me at the title of the post. The review cemented it for me. I've never read a Persephone before but I have got to get my hands on this one soon.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Welcome back, and thank you for coming back with such a fabulous review. I've never heard of this book or Dorothy Whipple, but am now intrigued by both. I shall keep an eye out for her books.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I will read this when I am ready to have my heart broken. Thanks for a wonderful review.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This sounds fantastic. I'll keep it in mind for sure.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This is a really, really wonderful review. I feel like I understand what the book is all about. I think I would admire her for not running after him. Even in our day, it is good for women to let the fellows go if they betray or mistreat. I love the part about the women being kinder in their older years. Not sure if I can bear the book.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I really liked the quotes you provided--sounds like lovely writing, almost elegiac. I've been reading Angle of Repose, which is also about the destruction of a life and what remains to be lived with, so it was really interesting to read this review.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Dear all....
    Thank you so much for your comments and welcoming noises. I have been away too long but I do appreciate these comments so much.
    Simon's question is a good one - who is "someone at a distance"? I think that my first thought would be that it describes the relationship between Ellen and Avery i.e. how they relate to each other rather than a reference to a specific person. It is certainly a beguiling title anyway!
    Best wishes,
    Hannah

    ReplyDelete
  21. I have become a persephone fan! Waiting for Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day to arrive in the mail. May be I will order this one next :)

    ReplyDelete