Someone at a Distance: A Treasure from the Grave of Library Basement Obscurity
Someone at a Distance (1953) by Dorothy Whipple (1893-1966) is about a wife who is strong and smart in the face of her husband’s extreme stupidity. Sound familiar? If you’re married, it should. Whether you’re male or female, the marriage relationship (or any committed relationship) requires sacrifice, forgiveness, patience, and understanding.
Main character, Ellen, possesses these qualities, although as a reader, I think she shouldn’t. Her husband Avery is seduced by a young French girl that comes to live with the family because of her connection to Avery’s mother. The couple’s children are teenagers, and their marriage seems to be rock solid. But the results are disastrous, with Louise, the French debutante, plotting to steal Avery, and with Ellen completely unaware that her husband has strayed.
At first, hints of trouble are sprinkled throughout the plot. Avery is revered by his family, so much so that “[h]is family would never let him find anything wrong with himself” (8). Ellen even does the housekeeping in a bachelor’s flat connected to Avery’s office in London where he stays when work demands it. A private apartment near his office? Come on, Ellen. She and Avery, innocent at first, are just asking for trouble.
Ellen’s occupation is that of wife and mother. She cooks, she cleans, she launders, and she loves. Louise, the French girl, is quite the opposite of Ellen, which makes her more exciting. Not only is she younger, but she is more concerned with her looks than with housework. Louise “pored with passionate concern over a damaged cuticle on her forefinger” (36). I’m sure there’s something snarky to be said here, but I just can’t think what. Anyway, Louise’s concern for her looks and her foreignness make her more attractive to Avery than Ellen, who does not realize that she must compete. The affair, which serves as a warning against women being completely dependent on men, is foreshadowed by Ellen’s mother-in-law, Mrs. North, reading Madame Bovary with Louise (132). Special attention should always be paid when authors allude to other books. Such references usually tell us what will happen or what the author’s views are on any subject.
Part of the resolution of this novel, without giving too much away, allows Ellen to find comfort among the female residents of a nursing home. She is surrounded by women who are gentle and wise. They have lived life and learned from it. “They were kinder than when they were young” (359). It is among these women that Ellen finds her strength and is able to move on. She is soothed by sisterhood, not by wallowing in her own grief. These women protect Ellen when her life has gone awry. I admire the women who surround Ellen in her difficult circumstances, and I admire Ellen for the way that she eventually deals with the blow in her life.
I like this part because recently I’ve been visiting an assisted-living home with some of the teenage girls from my neighborhood. The first time we went, many of us were nervous, anxious, and scared. My memories of nursing homes from childhood are not pleasant. However, once we got there, the women were kind and eager to meet us. One of them memorized all of our names after one introduction. Another shared her belief in the importance of education with the girls. Another was hailed by the others to be the smart one, for she had been valedictorian and the drum major in high school. She had also graduated with a Master’s degree in nursing at a time when women did not usually even attend college. These older women were impressive, welcoming, warm, and fascinating.
The only downside to the visit was the organ. The women wanted the girls to sing to them. I accompanied them on an organ that boasted settings as sophisticated as a child’s plastic keyboard. The result was a song that sounded like a revival of the Lawrence Welk show, which I’m sure the older women did not mind. And when I mentioned this to the girls as we were leaving, none of them knew what I was talking about. That made me feel old.
Dorothy Whipple, whom I have written about in more general terms here, is one of my favorite authors, and her novels are being reprinted by Persephone Books in London. The publishing house is interested in reviving forgotten female (and male) novelists from the United States and United Kingdom. I highly recommend any of their books, which can be ordered to arrive every month or can be found on Amazon. These forgotten novels are treasures from the graves of library basement obscurity.
Whipple, Dorothy. Someone at a Distance. London: Persephone, 2005.