Dorothy Whipple Someone at a Distance Reviewed by Serena Trowbridge

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Someone at a Distance

Dorothy Whipple

Persephone Books

UK Paperback

ISBN: 0953478025

Pages: 432; Price: £10

Date Reviewed: April 2004

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004

Note: the covers of Persephone Books are gray with a cream coloured title & author inset; the endpapers, different for each title,are seen in this image.



General Fiction


This novel, first published in 1953, is a good example of why the books Persephone reprints are well worth reading. The story opens with domestic scenes of harmony: a young wife, Ellen, and her husband Avery, living through the shadow of the Second World War in what seems to be marital bliss. Their children are perfect, their home lovely; the only blot on the landscape seems to be Avery's mother, Mrs. North, an elderly domineering woman who likes to complain about the neglect of her young family. The setting of peace and harmony is in itself unsettling; for the first third or so of the book I was enjoying the period details of home life, but was unnerved by the apparent happiness and calm.

Calm does not last, of course, either in real life or in novels. A young Frenchwoman, escaping a disastrous affair in her home town of Amigny, comes to live with Mrs. North as a companion to make up for the family's supposed neglect, and her perfect, cold poise lends a chill to the comfortable warmth of family routine. Of course, the perfection is doomed, but here it seems unshadowed for a remarkable chunk of the book, building up details giving the reader little clues which eventually fall into place. The shadow which falls is gradual, succeeded by a sudden blow.

The novel rests on the psychological development of the characters, an innocent, complacent wife, and a selfish but well-meaning husband. The corruption of innocence of both wife and daughter; the disintegration of the family unit, and the apportioning of blame and guilt after the event seem like rather modern topics for a novel, but after all, human nature does not change throughout the centuries. While perhaps the views of the North family seem somewhat blinkered to a twenty-first century audience, the message is the same. The crisis, when it occurs, is partly due to male pride and a misplaced sense of doing what it right. The reader is left in no doubt, though, that the women of the novel are far stronger than the men, more flexible, more strong willed, and more capable at facing the realities of life.

The novel's close deals with compromise and moving forward, however difficult the future may seem. It struck me that as the characters learn to adjust to their new situations, and put guilt and blame behind them as they look forward rather than back, it seemed a metaphor for the struggles of Europe after the war. The tale has a distinctly European aspect, not only because of the inclusion of a Frenchwoman, but also in its consideration of the follies and foibles of the British!

I cannot deny that this is a moral story; what it is not, though, is one which moralizes. There is nothing preachy or smug about this tale; it is simply there, enfolding the reader in a complete world of its own. Novels nowadays are rarely like this, but it is refreshing to see such finely drawn characters, and although it seems an easy read, the subtleties and complexities of the characters seem boundless in retrospect.

If you're looking for a pacy, action-packed read, this is not for you; but if you enjoy subtle books with layers of meaning, which examine situations and characters with a clear and slightly acerbic eye, you'll love this; I did.