The art of letter-writing, as taught at the Pension Ste Colombe, had not included an example of a letter one could write to one’s lover’s wife to ask her to send the clothes he had left behind when he deserted her.
I’m a longtime fan of Dorothy Whipple and Someone at a Distance has been on my to-read list for years. I was inspired to pick it up after abandoning another book (which shall remain nameless) which I’d been struggling with due to overwritten, consciously ‘literary’ descriptions which did nothing to compensate for a rambling plot and vapid characters. Having cast that aside, I wasn’t in the mood to take a risk with my next read. I knew Dorothy Whipple wouldn’t let me down, and she didn’t.
This 1953 novel is a simple story of how a 20-year marriage breaks down, but the depth of insight, sympathy and period detail Dorothy Whipple brings to it make it a fascinating and page-turning read.
What dooms Ellen and Avery North’s marriage is their faith in it and in each other. Ellen believes that Avery is not the type to cheat, and so does Avery. Neither of them see Louise Lanier, the beautiful young Frenchwoman who unexpectedly enters their lives, as a threat until it is too late. Writing at a time when the predatory Other Woman usually took all the blame for marital breakdown, Whipple doesn’t hesitate to depict Louise as a calculating woman who cold-bloodedly sets out to snare another woman’s husband, but she also shows how Avery’s selfishness and vanity make him easy prey, and how Ellen’s trusting and naïve nature sets her up for betrayal and abandonment. Whipple is not sentimental about marriage, which was so heavily idealised and romanticised in the postwar years:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening, ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal.
A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is.
For twenty years Ellen had been so used to acting with Avery, never without him, that she had waited for him to agree that something must be done about Louise.
I have a fascination with literature’s bad girls, and I found Louise a very interesting character, and even an inspiring one. In some respects she is an updated version of the stereotypical French schoolgirls who appeared in Enid Blyton – obsessed with skincare, spending hours on fine needlework, lacking the English sense of honour. However, self-centred, manipulative and unscrupulous women exist in every nationality. It has to be said in Louise’s defence that she works very hard at being a homewrecker. She spends hours on grooming herself and on buying and caring for her clothes, with very glamorous results:
The light from the lamp shone downwards on her smooth, dark head. Her arms were bare and slender on the desk, her dress, her favourite magenta red, fitted closely over waist and bosom and spread into wide skirts as she sat. Avery was drunk; there was no-one to look at her. But it really didn’t matter, because she looked at herself from time to time in the mirror on the wall. She always gave as much pleasure to her own eyes as to any others. More, in fact, because she alone knew what perfect finish she had achieved.
(This was really where the inspiration part came in. It’s no coincidence that shortly after reading Someone at a Distance, I signed up for my first ever beauty box.)
The references to fashion help set the book firmly in the early 1950s. At Christmas Anne, Ellen and Avery’s fifteen-year-old daughter, is delighted with the gift of a white tulle dress with extravagantly full skirts – the archetypal prom dress originally made fashionable by an Edith Head creation for the teenage Elizabeth Taylor in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. The dress and the role helped promote Taylor from child to adult star. Anne is just one of thousands of girls who hoped for a similar graduation to grown-up status. Ironically, it’s not her sophisticated dress but her father’s adultery which brings to an end her charmed childhood.
Raised during wartime, Anne prefers ‘mock cream’ made with sugar, cornflour and margarine to real cream but also revels in the luxuries returning to British shops – not only the ‘yards and yards’ of white tulle in her dress, but also a box of marrons glacés which have their part to play in the story. Unfortunately for Ellen, the ultimate luxury of a fully-staffed house is now an impossible dream, and while she has ‘daily women’ to help with the housework for two days a week, the rest of the time she struggles alone to keep up pre-war standards. On Christmas Day, not only does she take responsibility for cooking and serving dinner without outside help but in the evening she fills hot water bottles for the whole family and turns down the beds.
Louise, of course, is no help whatsoever.
‘Their conversation,’ thought Louise, ‘is for children and animals. I am here and there are three males. But they look at me with less animation than they look at the cat and don’t speak to me so much.’
The sight of other people’s happiness irritated her. Happy people were so boring.
Despite the differences between them, Ellen and Louise have something in common: they make men the centre of their world. While Louise doesn’t feel alive unless she is basking in male attention, Ellen, deprived of her husband, loses the will to care for herself:
It went dark. Rain scratched at the windowpanes. She added a boiled egg to the belated tea, to make one meal do for two. She had joined the great army of solitary women who have boiled eggs at night, the women without men.
However, the moment her son arrives to visit her, Ellen is restored to brisk efficiency: ‘In five minutes you shall have an omelet, bacon, coffee and goodness knows what.’
The collapse of her marriage at a time when divorce had very serious social consequences for all concerned, starts Ellen on a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately it seemed to me that the book ends before her journey is complete. The most I can say without spoiling the ending is: I felt the conclusion of the novel was mired in the social customs of the day, and the book’s first readers most likely reacted very differently to the outcome.
This was too domestic and ladylike a novel to cause much of a stir on first publication, but today it should take its rightful place as an English postwar classic.
FTC required disclosure: I bought my own copy of Someone at a Distance.