Saturday, September 26, 2009

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

by Dorothy Whipple
413 pages
first published 1953 by John Murray
2008, Persephone Classic Edition

J.B. Priestly once described Dorothy Whipple as the "Jane Austen of the 20th century". After reading Someone at a Distance, I think this may be a pretty fair comparison. The novel takes a look at a post-WW II upper middle class family in England. Almost all the action revolves around the domestic drama that occurs when a young French woman (Louise Lanier) takes a position as a live-in companion to Old Mrs. North, and gradually insinuates herself into the North family.

When circumstances eventually force an extended stay at the home of Avery (Old Mrs. North's son) and Ellen North, the situation deteriorates. Louise, recently dumped by her lover for a woman of higher social status, is in desperate need of a new conquest to bolster her self-esteem.

"To live dangerously became the most exciting of games to Louise. The double life she led, the lies she told, the necessity of deceiving, became almost second nature to her... Also, her inclination to despise people had been fostered by finding them so easy to deceive. They were stupid to be so gullible. If you were clever enough - and she was - you could get away with anything." (page 134)

Ellen North's entire life revolves around her husband Avery, her children Hugh and Anne, her home, and her garden. She is sweet, gentle, and down-to-earth.

"He [Avery] took Ellen for granted and that was, Louise considered, Ellen's own fault. She was altogether too open and simple. A woman needed art and subtlety and Ellen had neither." (page 164)

"The foolish creature [Ellen] didn't seem to realize that it was necessary to fight. The battle was joined and would be over before she knew there was one." (page 202)

Whipple's writing exquisitely shows the pure, raw emotional responses of all parties involved as this domestic drama unfolds... and it is riveting! I'll simply let the author's words complete this review. They could not be more beautiful.

"A family is like a jigsaw puzzle. If a piece is lost, the rest no longer makes a pattern." (page 254)

"These women were old, time had softened them, they had learned something from loss, helplessness, loneliness; they knew almost anything can happen to anybody. They were kinder than when they were young." (page 359)

"Life is like a sea, sometimes you are in the trough of a wave, sometimes on the crest. When you are in the trough, you wait for the crest, and always, trough or crest, a mysterious tide bears you forward to an unseen, but certain shore." (page 413)


  1. A wonderful review, JoAnn! This book is definitely one I'd like to read. Thank you for the quotes!

  2. This was the first persephone book I read and I remember absolutely loving it. Glad you liked it too 0:)

  3. What wonderful words! I am so looking forward to this book, but I am making myself wait until I have the time to really do it justice.

  4. Sounds wonderful, JoAnn! I look forward to reading it! :)

  5. Great quotes that you shared. This sounds like a really great book.

  6. It was such a good book wasn't it! So glad that you enjoyed it.

  7. Loved every single word you wrote. Now I'm going to try to hunt down a copy of this book!

  8. You chose perfect quotes from this wonderful book. It is brilliant in a quiet, subtle, and devastating way. I love how Whipple really sees and understands human nature, at its best and its worst.

    This is probably the best Whipple I've read but The Priory comes very close to it. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it yet.

  9. "These women were old, time had softened them, they had learned something from loss, helplessness, loneliness; they knew almost anything can happen to anybody. They were kinder than when they were young."

    thank you for sharing this wonderful line-I will read this book for sure after your very inspiring review.

  10. Wonderful review. I loved all the quotes, especially the last. Thank you!

  11. Really enjoyed this one too - and what a great review.

  12. Ivy - This was an excellent book, and I think you would like it.

    Tracey - This is my third Persephone title ( Miss Pettigrew and The Home-maker are the others) and I love them! Can't wait to read another!

    Fleurfisher - I think you'll be very happy if you can carve out a weekend to devote to this book. Wish I could have read it over just a couple days myself.

    Claire - You'll love this one! Have you read any of Whipple's other books?

    Justicejenniferreads - I had a hard time picking just a few quotes. There were so many that just blew me away...

    Darlene - I think your blog was the first place I heard about this. I really need to start keeping better track if these things...

  13. Staci - Good won't be sorry!

    Rachel - The Priory will be my next Whipple, and I'm not going to wait too long to read it.

    mel u - That was my favorite passage!

    ds - I don't usually include that many quotes, but it was so hard to choose this time.

    Verity - Thanks. Whipple is amazing!

  14. Your review is making me wish I had this book in my house right now. I see a Persephone order in the near future:)

  15. I love these quotes. I think I might need to find this book.

  16. I am so glad that you enjoyed this. I love its raw evocation of emotion. Whipple writes about pain and the devastating side of life all too well. The only other Whipple that I have read so far is They Were Sisters and that is subtly crushing too.

  17. Great review. I really want to read this one & I'm glad you talked about it. Love Persephone!

  18. Book Psmith - I was just looking through the Persephone catalog over the weekend, and there are so many books I want to oder!

    Stacybuckeye - I did use a lot of quotes in this review, but there were still so many more I wanted to include.

    Paperback Reader - My next Persephone order will definitely include another book by Whipple!

    Marie - I hope you can fit this in soon! I'll need to place another Persephone order soon.

  19. I just finished this one and really enjoyed it. But boy o boy was louise just horrid! And you couldn't help but root for Ellen. How could Avery be so stupid?! Arghhhh.

  20. Care - A year has passed and the memory of horrid Louise lingers on... but so does the memory of a few beautiful quotes. Glad to hear you enjoyed this, too. I haven't been able to find any of Whipple's other books in the US. Hoping to stock up when we travel to London next month.


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