Continuing the week of Persephone Birthday celebrations here at S-i-a-B (and do keep telling us in the previous post about your favourite Persephones and how you found out about them, and put your request in for a chance to win a Persephone book of your choice) – I don’t think I’ve ever talked about one of my favourite Persephone books. Appropriately enough it was one of the first three to be published, so it’s now ten years since it came back into print.
Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was Whipple’s last novel, published in 1953 and received no reviews at all. For a once bestselling novelist, this was quite a blow – and, what’s worse, it was a wholly undeserved silence. I’ve only read four of Whipple’s books – SaaD, They Knew Mr. Knight, Greenbanks, The Closed Door and other stories, all except Greenbanks published by Persephone – but Someone at a Distance is the best of those. A lot of people agree that it’s her best novel, and it should have been treated with fanfares and red carpets.
The plot appears, on the surface, to be conventional. A contentedly married couple, Ellen and Avery, are disrupted when a French companion arrives and runs off with Avery. The narrative moves back and forth across the channel, looking at the dignified devestation of Ellen and the homeland and family of Louise, the French interloper. What starts as a not unusual trio is given enormous depth and believable emotion when we investigate why Louise acts as she does; witness Avery’s confusion and attempts to organise his life and mistakes; Ellen’s need to look after her two children as well as retain her dignity and integrity. And all the time the reader is asking him/herself – who is the ‘someone at a distance’? Whipple sometimes creates some great titles that make you think all the way through the novel, and while I have set views on which character the ‘someone’ is, others disagree.
I’m a big believer in judging books on their writing, rather than plot – and Whipple is a prose writer par excellence. Not showy or grandiose, but both moving and compulsive – Someone at a Distance is a fairly long book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you read it in one or two sittings. Dorothy Whipple may well be the great undiscovered English novelist – certainly Someone at a Distance is an excellently constructed, sophisticated and emotionally taut novel which should never have been allowed to go out of print.
As well as being one of the first three Persephone Books titles published, Someone at a Distance was one of the first Persephone Classics, and treated to a wider publication and beautiful cover. I love the uniformity of ther Persephone library, but I also think this Persephone Classics cover is the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen. And so I had to own both…
I’m sure lots of people here have read Someone at a Distance – thoughts? Who do you think the ‘someone’ is? If you’ve not read it, I really encourage you to give Dorothy Whipple a try.