Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company. She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.
Old Mrs North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.
This is the opening of Dorothy Whipple’s last novel Someone at a Distance. Is it the kind of opening that would make agents jump up and down with excitement if they came across it in a submission today? Probably not, which is sad for those of us who love this kind of straightforward honest prose and storytelling.
Dorothy Whipple herself described it as ‘a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage.’ There is the deceived wife, the foolishly weak husband, the envious, greedy French girl who sets out to seduce him to console herself, the traumatised teenaged children. But the way it all happens makes the novel a page turner.
This is not a plot-driven novel; what interested Dorothy Whipple was character, and she writes about people with acute psychological insight, subtly through telling little details and in simple everyday scenes.
The tragedy to come is foreshadowed when Louise, coming as companion to old Mrs North, reads aloud to her from Emma Bovary. She is escaping the humiliation of being rejected by a man above her in the social hierarchy of the French provincial town where her parents tiptoe around her afraid of what they have hatched. To take Avery away from Ellen will give Louise power again and restore her self-confidence. Ellen ‘didn’t deserve what she had if she couldn’t keep it’.
Ellen is what may annoy some modern readers; she is a happy housewife, unselfish and naive by the standards of today. Goodness in heroines is out of fashion in fiction. But she is thoroughly human: “All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”
The way Ellen deals with what happens to her and makes a new life for herself and her children gives the novel its redemptive drive. There is a sense of people coming together, crossing social barriers, in a common humanity. Among them is an old lady in the retirement hotel where Ellen takes a job: “But Mrs. Brockington, old, alone, almost crippled by rheumatism, had faith and courage. She had more. She had a warm serenity, and when Ellen was with her, she almost had it too. For goodness is catching. Mrs. Brockington was further on the road Ellen wanted to travel, and because Mrs. Brockington had got there, Ellen felt she might get there too.”
It’s fifty years this month since Dorothy Whipple died. Her novels were hugely popular in the 30s and 40s; J. B. Priestley described her as a worthy successor to Jane Austen. But when Someone at a Distance was published in 1953 it attracted no major reviews. She wrote no more novels and died in 1966 believing that her work would be forgotten.
It will always be a mystery (because Virago has rescued so many marvellous forgotten authors) that when Carmen Callil and her colleagues at Virago in the seventies were deciding which books to republish, they claimed that Dorothy Whipples’s ‘prose and content absolutely defeated us’. They invented something which they called the Dorothy Whipple line, below which they would not go – meaning that they considered her too lowbrow. Jane Austen – as usual – hit the nail on the head when she wrote that one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.
Thankfully Nicola Beauman founder of Persephone Books didn’t feel the same way and has been vindicated in her championship. She published Someone at a Distance in 1999, the third in Persephone’s list, and subsequently many more of Dorothy Whipple’s novels: They Knew Mr Knight, The Priory, They Were Sisters, Greenbanks, High Wages, Because of the Lockwoods and The Closed Door and Other Stories. Dorothy Whipple is now Persephone’s best-selling author – and all this in spite of her surname which it must be admitted does make one think of a fancy pudding …
Wit, moral seriousness and a seeing eye. There are not many authors whom one can read over and over again with continuing pleasure and gratitude, but Dorothy Whipple is one of them.