Dorothy Whipple can take what would ordinarily be a mundane predictable story and takes it to the pinnacle of character studies. With just as much insight into a man’s thinking, as a woman’s.
Someone at a distance set after WWII, is based around a wealthy, upper class family, the North’s. Mr North, is a co-owner of a publishing house in London, and goes up every day on the train. Ellen his wife is a stay at home mum, but is very busy with a big house, and looking after all the household duties. As this is post WWII and domestic staff, willing to live in the country are hard to find. Their eldest son, Hugh, who is doing his national service time and their daughter is away at boarding school.
What falls into all this British country idealism, Ms Louise Lanier, a young French woman who is socially conscious of her working class position, in her small town. She had for a long time secretly dated Paul, the son of a wealthy town family, but he had jilted her for the socially acceptable Germaine, right family, right class.
Mrs North senior answers an add in the paper for a companion. Feeling left out and not payed enough attention to, even though she has her lovely own house and a companion servant, plus the family do visit here, she feels slighted.
So begins the circle of events that spiral down to the breaking up the the North’s happy family. Very near the beginning you know this will happen. It is the character studies that carry this story through. I was able to jump to the end and read it, which usually would totally ruin a book but not this one. You just want to read what they think, why they act the way they do, and Dorothy Whipple is a master character builder.
A few quotes of the many I enjoyed.
Ellen says of Louise, “When you don’t mind how rude you are, you have every advantage.”
Speaking of old Mrs North and Louise’s relationship together, Ms. Whipple writes ‘They were very pleased with each other.’
Louise’s parents looking at a photograph of the North’s said ‘She has a sweet face,” said Madame Lanier. ‘What a very nice family. They all look so happy.’
Louise’s thoughts, ‘For a long time, she had been looking on at money without having any herself. It was too bad. The lack of it had ruined her life. If she had, had money, Paul wouldn’t have left her for Germaine Brouet.’
In reference to Avery, ‘She always had to listen carefully, ….. he barely moved his lips when he spoke. It gave her the air of hanging on his words, which he thought very attractive in her.’
Louise looking in the mirror, after having married Avery. ‘She always gave as much pleasure to her own eyes as others. More, in fact, because she alone knew what perfect finish she had achieved.’
Mrs Brokington an elderly close friend of Ellen’s. ‘They were silent during Ellen’s tale, the old woman saw or thought she saw that it was the child, Anne, who was keeping her parents apart. But she said nothing. It was too late the divorce had happened. She wouldn’t throw Ellen into worse agitation and confusion by saying that Avery might not have wanted it at all.’
Well I could go on and on quoting passages from the book.
It’s hard from our 2009 viewpoint to understand the class system of the time period. But I can say of my own experience as a child in the 60’s it was strong. I’ll give you an example.
Of a baby boomer class of 40 children strong, only one child passed her eleven plus examination to go to the prestigious High School, every one else was denigrated to the secondary modern school. This was so based on the class you came from, what your parents did for a living.
After five parents kicked up a rumpus, saying it was impossible for all the other 39 children to have failed, they got their children into the Grammar School, not even the High School. Class distinction at it’s worst.
To be quite honest the curriculum at the secondary school was very good, but it was the stigma, you just cannot know how that felt to work so hard as an eleven year old, know you truly were good enough and not make it. Not to wear that uniform.
So I can just a little have empathy for Louise Lanier.
Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs, by mostly women writers. It is their 10th Anniversary this year. Someone at a Distance was among the first group of books offered.