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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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Spring is sprung (I think); and this blog is back!

Good morning folks. I have had a bit of a break from blogging recently, basically due to being buried in work, and I can honestly say that I have missed it dreadfully. So here is a celebratory picture and now I will get on with some proper posts...