Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (1953)

Review by George S. Warning: I couldn’t write this one without including plot spoilers.

Last month was Whipple month at the Reading Group. I had not read any of her novels before, but enjoyed this one greatly.

The Norths, an almost perfect family, live in the country, an hour’s train journey from London. Avery North, a publisher, commutes every day, while his wife is absorbed by her home and garden, even though the children are now away, the son doing National Service, the daughter at boarding school..
They are so complete in themselves as a family that Avery’s mother, living nearby, feels neglected. She answers an advertisement in the Times from a Frenchwoman offering companionship and light domestic help.
The book begins as light comedy. Louise easily manipulates the old woman – but gives her the companionship and flattery she needs. The pair talk endlessly together about clothes – a subject to which Ellen, Avery’s wife is indifferent. The Norths find Louise annoying, but are glad that she is keeping the old woman occupied.
Louise leaves, and shortly afterwards Mrs North dies, leaving the Frenchwoman a thousand pounds in her will. Louise comes to England to collect it, and, since she is discontented with her life in France, decides to stay with the Norths for a long time.
She amuses herself by manipulating them,as easily as she had handled the old lady. She makes Ellen feel shabby; she flirts with the husband. It is the family’s very virtues that she uses to undermine them. They are too polite to tell her that she has outstayed her welcome (When Ellen finally picks up the courage to tell her to go, Louise pleads that she has nowhere else to live, and Ellen’s kindness cannot help but insist that she stay.)
Avery falls for her (though perhaps this too is partly from a feeling that it would be impolite not to respond to her overtures). Ellen and daughter discover the pair in a clinch, and the marriage implodes. Avery, ashamed, takes Louise away, and stays with her, appalled with himself for having compromised her.
Whipple is at her best in showing how the pain of the break-up, caused by a whim of Louise’s devastates Ellen and the two children. It also ruins Avery himself. He loses his family, his job and his self-respect, and is left attached to someone he does not love. His code forbids him from actually deserting Louise, and besides, to go back would be humiliating, He drifts into alcoholism. What began as a social comedy develops into a gripping and appalling tragedy.
Louise is a monster, but Whipple makes sure we understand how she became one. The daughter of lower-middle class booksellers, she yearned for more, but an affair with a local rich young man left her humiliated when he preferred to marry someone of his own social standing. What she does to the Norths is a revenge for what the world has done to her.
This is a Catholic novel – but not in the show-off theological way that the books of Graham Greene or Charles Williams are Catholic novels. Evil comes about through triviality, almost through carelessness, and it hurts people; Louise’s rich French lover had no idea that he was doing anything very important when leading her on and then ditching her, and she in turn plays with Avery just because she can. Small actions have terrible repercussions even at a huge distance (hence the book’s title). The novel’s deep subject, I think, is the sacrament of marriage. After the break-up, Ellen goes through a dark night of the soul, losing her faith in God as well as losing her husband. Later she reads Evelyn Underhill (a very popular and influential writer about mysticism) and this is the first step on the way to spiritual healing.
She makes a new life for herself through purposeful work, becoming assistant manager at a hotel for elderly ladies – an upmarket old people’s home. The other helpers there are also women who have been treated roughly by life in different ways.
Finally she meets Avery again, realises he never loved Louise and that he is now deeply unhappy. Will they get together again? The idea floats as a possibility. Some members of the group criticised this ending as sentimental, but I think it is there to insist that the sacrament of marriage can triumph even over divorce.
This is a gripping novel, especially once the break-up begins. Dorothy Whipple has a true novelist’s ability to communicate the characters’ anguish, and to make you care about it. Her style is not showy; a Manchester Guardian review of one of the earlier novels describes her style as ‘bland but merciless’, which describes it rather well.

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