Dorothy Whipple famously – or perhaps infamously – was the novelist Virago refused to publish. Worse still, the company had a standard known as the ‘Whipple line’, below which they ‘would not sink’. Explaining her position in a Guardian article back in 2008, Virago founder Carmen Callil said: “Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us.” Personally I think she was wrong, and it seems I’m not the only one, because Dorothy Whipple is now published by Persephone and has become their best-selling author. Even so, she still qualifies for a place in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors compiled by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, and since today would have been her birthday (Whipple that is, not Jane), I’ve scribbled some thoughts on Someone at a Distance, which I really enjoyed.
It is a heart-breaking account of the breakdown of a marriage, written with restraint, style and gentle humour. Here we have Avery and Ellen North, blissfully married for 20 years. He is a successful publisher and she is a happy housewife (I would be a happy housewife if, like her, I had help from two ‘half-day’ women who work on alternate days). Anyway, the couple live in a spacious house in the country, with a large garden, and a paddock for their daughter Anne’s horse. Anne, aged 15, is at boarding school, while her brother, 18-year-old Hugh, is in the Army, doing his National Service. The family are devoted to one another – but their idyllic life is about to be torn apart.
Nearby lives Avery’s wealthy, widowed, cantankerous mother who decides to employs Louise, a young Frenchwoman, as her companion. Louise has just been dumped by her lover (he married a woman with money and position), and is desperate to escape the boredom of the provincial town where her parents run a shop. Her favourite book is Madam Bovary, and we are told: “The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring. It was unintelligent to be happy, Louise considered.” Louise is certainly not happy. It’s difficult at times to decide what she feels – anger, resentment, loneliness perhaps. She is beautiful, rather like a Modigliani painting I think.
Her face was as smooth as ivory and the same colour, her dark eyes slanted up a little at the outer corners. Her dark shining hair was parted in the middle and drawn into a knot on her slender neck. Her lips were made up, even for breakfast, in a magenta colour, which nevertheless became her and matched the varnish on the nails of her narrow hands.
But despite that – or perhaps because of it – people don’t like her. Her parents love
her, but are scared of her; most men in the town where she lives kep their distance, and she has no female friends. In England she alienates almost everyone she meets, but old Mrs North likes her – and Avery obviously finds her attractive (despite the fact she is making eyes at his son). Cocooned in her cosy world, Ellen fails to see the danger, but is relieved when Louise returns to France. However, shortly after this, old Mrs North dies, leaving a sum of money to Louise, along with her furs and jewellery, so Louise returns to claim her inheritance – and Avery finally succumbs to her charms.
Divorce follows and Ellen, devastated, sets about finding herself a job and somewhere to live, for the house must be sold. She is appointed as assistant manager at Somerton Manor, a local establishment where elderly ‘gentlefolk’ live out their days, which also operates as a restaurant. There she turns the old stable block into a home for herself and children and begins to rebuild her life. She proves to be surprisingly independent. She refuses to accept alimony. although she lets Avery pay for Anne’s schooling and the upkeep of the horse. She doesn’t see why he should have to support her, and is determined to make it on her own. But she never stops loving Avery.
For his part, Avery realises immediately that he doesn’t love Louise, but has no intention of trying to patch things up with his wife and children because he cannot bear to think they see him as flawed. Life with Louise is disastrous; he drinks too much, she spends his dwindling fortune and will not loose her grip on him. They visit France, where she hopes everyone will be impressed by his her luck in catching such handsome, wealthy man. But her parents, appalled that their daughter has broken up a happy home, warn that they will never see her again as long as she remains with Avery. Outside in the street is her old lover Paul, and Whipple tells us:
He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.
It’s like a tragic game of consequences, in which everything that happens can be traced back to this one man and his dalliance with Louise. Avery, of course, is unaware of this, but there is a kind of connection between him and is family and Paul.
I liked the way the story alternated between England and France, showing us events in both places, and helping to build a picture of Louise and what has happened to her in the past. Whipple is good at describing a character’s appearance and creating a portrait of their personality. Take Mrs Beard, the bad-tempered but good-hearted manager of Somerton Manor:
Mrs. Beard was a middle-aged Gibson girl, built-up hair, large busy, curved hips and that thrown-forward look which may have been due to her stays or to the fact that she wore high-heeled court shoes which tired her and made her cross, but which she thought necessary to her appearance.
Mrs Beard has had a tough time herself, and thinks Ellen should take whatever money she can get from Avery. The novel was published in 1953, when divorce was less common, when women had fewer opportunities to train for a career than they do today, and when they were still expected to give up work when they got married. But their options were far greater than those facing women like Ellen and Mrs Beard, left on their own after 20 years of marriage with few resources and skills.
D’you know how hard money is to come by for women like us?” said Mrs Beard. “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 too young to get a training, and we’ve spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands, Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty. My husband died and didn’t leave me a cent, so I had to work But yours is living and is bound by law to provide for you.
In fact, I’m surprised at how many single women feature in the novel, all dealing with life in different ways. They may be minor characters, but they are there. The teachers at Anne’s school, educated, caring, kind but firm, seem to be happy and fulfilled preparing of girls for life in the modern world. Then there’s Miss Daley, old Mrs North’s housekeeper, and all the elderly ladies at Somerton (who all have a tale to tell), and Miss Beasley, one of Ellen’s ‘half-day’ dailies, who turns out to have been abandoned by her husband 30 years earlier, and proudly announces that she’s ‘not done too bad’. It’s an epithet that could be applied to all the single women in the book. Spinsters, widows, abandoned wives, they’ve all set to and made the best of life on their own, which is a tremendous achievement.
It’s easy to be dismissive of writers like Whittle who focused on small-scale domestic issues, but it’s those everyday dramas that are so important in people’s lives, and she portrays feelings and emotions that we can all relate to. And there are bigger issues there about women’s roles in society.