Although a long time Persephone addict, I have never yet read their self-professed favourite author, Dorothy Whipple. Maybe it's her name, but I just haven't been able to get the image of a blue rinse out of my head, and have therefore pressed Ms Whipple snobbishly into the background. That, I suppose, is exactly what publishers have done with her for the past several decades, hence Persephone's championing of her, and so it is with some delayed guilt that I finally picked up Someone at a Distance.
It must first be said that, while there is a thread that runs through the majority of Persephone's output, by no means are all their books the same. Some of my personal favourites are those that tread a fraught path - William, An Englishman and Little Boy Lost, for example - though I have also loved some of the frothier numbers such as Patience. Whipple walks a line somewhere between the two, I think.
Someone at a Distance is a harrowing tale, the story of a perfectly ordinary middle class housewife whose husband is lured away from her by a dispicable French hussy. And when I say dispicable, I mean it: Louise Lanier has nothing to endear one to her, nothing. She is vain, self-centred, rude, lazy, classist, sexist..an awful human being. That isn't to say she is two dimensional, however. She is frighteningly - worryingly, perhaps - real. It is in this complexity that she becomes more than just a warning, which she might otherwise have been, and instead engages us fully and generates enormous (enjoyable) ire. How dare this horrendous being ruin Ellen's delightful life? Ellen, who keeps a lovely home and whose sole harmless interest is gardening. Ellen, who is devoted to her husband and children, and who delights rather overly in her simple social life, which comprises of little more than a morning chat with the postman, the grocer, the fishmonger. Ellen, who...quite frankly, is rather dull, certainly not as exciting as Louise. Are we then, to find ourselves sympathising with pathetic husband Avery? Are we, like him, excited by what we know is bad, unable to see the beauty in the norm?
I don't think it was Whipple's intention that we should find the sections of the book that focus on Louise - particularly those when she is back in France - the more interesting, but I really did look forward to them. Of course, I had no sympathy at all for either her or Avery, whose weakness and cowardice in breaking up his family comes absolutely down to the fact that he doesn't have the guts to face his daughter after she finds him in a rather compromising position with Louise. He drives away from the house immediately, and literally never sees his daughter, or speaks to her, again. One feels extraordinarily for Ellen after this, as she struggles not only to support her children emotionally and financially, while holding herself together, but tries to, I suppose, muster enough personality to move on with her life. At forty odd, unqualified, unskilled, inexperienced, she is incapable of finding a career, and yet somehow, as her own kindness is repaid by those she has been good to in the past, she manages to find independence of a sort.
Whipple's style is simple, engaging, real. She is, like most Persephone authors, easy to read. There is humour in here, though it is somewhat rueful in nature. Above all, for me, the interest in this book comes from the reminder that women's position in society, even two generations ago, was so far from our own today. Books written by women at a time when women were still, not repressed as such, but sidelined, hold enormous interest for me, and this is just one of the many reasons I think Persephone is such an important publisher.
Someone at a Distance is not my favourite Persephone, but I enjoyed it a great deal, and will certainly head for another Whipple soon. It has more bite, and is much less blue-rinsey, than I had expected...