One of my favourite novels by Whipple is Someone at a Distance; beautifully published by the wonderful Persephone Books. Someone at a Distance follows the North family as their world is spun by the arrival of Mademoiselle Louise Lanier, a young and beautiful French woman who has been employed by Ellen North’s Mother in Law as a companion.
Ellen North is married to Avery, they have two children, Hugh and Anne. They live in a beautiful house in a quaint English village. Ellen manages the household and raises the children, Avery goes and works hard to earn the money to maintain the North’s happy home. Ellen is that rare and unfashioable woman, a very happy housewife. Her love for Avery is shining and constant, her children are well mannered, happy and joyful. Ellen is grateful for her home and family and then Avery’s head is turned.
The girl was so beautifully finished: the cool suit, the white Juliet cap on the smooth dark hair, the white lawn blouse – all exactly right.
Louise is youthful and vain, she takes endless care of her appearance and she hasn’t had two children and doesn’t know the tiredness resulting from managing a family. Ultimately, she is sexy and flirtatious. Avery is bored and Louise is there to entertain him when Ellen is busy in the kitchen or garden or at the shops. Louise plays a skilful game and Ellen finds herself out of her depth.
As Avery succumbs to the charms of Louise, the family is torn apart. Ellen is steadfast and resolutely believes that her husband will do the right thing and put his family first. Avery is weak, indecisive and selfish. He finds himself carried along by the excitement that Louise promises before thinking through any consequences. Before long his actions are irrevocable and he has to face up to the choices he has made. It is a stark realisation indeed for him to consider what he has lost. As Ellen slowly builds a new life her love for Avery remains constant.
Dorothy Whipple’s final novel was published in 1952 and is a gripping account of a middle-aged man’s folly and the repurcussions that occur. Whipple’s novel is a searing examination of human frailty and there is a distinct moral message as Avery North and Louise Lanier get their come-uppance. But overriding this, is a sense of hope. Hope for Ellen, a genuinely good woman whose tale has been told so many times by so many people throughout time. But it is Dorothy Whipple who recounts this tale with insight, honesty and clarity which combine to create a unique portrayal of a deceived wife and foolish husband.
The endpapers, pictured above, borrow from the autumnal pallette and this is absolutely a book to read when the rain is pattering on the window, the fire is glowing, the cat is asleep and the hot cup of tea warms your heart as Ellen learns that,
Life is like the sea, sometimes you are in the trough of the wave, sometimes on the crest. When you are in the trough, you wait for the crest, and always, trough or crest, a mysterious tide bears you forward to an unseen, but certain shore.