Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
My favorite book blogger, Book Snob, has been raving about Persephone Books Press in London for awhile (if you happen to be in London, they have a storefront where you can buy books – heaven!). Persephone is a small press specializing in publishing out of print books of great quality, particularly by women (and, perhaps, British authors – I’m not sure this is a requirement, but many of them appear to be). Rachel at Book Snob has said that Dorothy Whipple is their greatest find – the best, least well-known writer they publish. So, I was eager to try her out.
I found out recently that Persephone is making a small number of their books available as ebooks that you can buy directly from their website (or from Amazon, but I preferred that all my money go to Persephone – I’m guessing Persephone can’t sell kindle-formatted books directly to customers per an agreement with Amazon). I wanted to support the press, avoid Amazon taking a slice of their profit, and avoid waiting for books (a bit expensively and slowly for overseas shipping) to come to me. So, buying one of their nine ebooks was a great option and I chose #130) Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. However, I could not (easily) put the book on my kindle, so I had to use Bluefire Reader to read it on my ipad – more about that experience later.
I was not able to learn a lot about Dorothy Whipple – although Persephone has a short Dorothy Whipple biography here. She lived between 1893 and 1966 and wrote at least seven novels. She was an extremely popular novelist in pre-World War II Britain. Someone at a Distance was her last novel. Two of her other books were made into films.
Someone at a Distance was published in 1953 and is the story of Ellen and Avery North who live with their daughter Anne in a lovely countryside house some distance from London. Their son, Hugh, is away in the Army doing compulsory National Service. He has postponed going to Cambridge until after it is completed. After Cambridge, he has a position waiting for him in the publishing house where his father works. Avery comes from manufacturing money and holds a major share of a hosiery factory with his siblings.
I gather the story took place just after World War II (rationing is still going on, there are references to the War, 1000 British pounds is a fortune – that doesn’t sound very 1940s?) but I found it a bit hard to place. A clue on the Persephone website says Ellen furnished her home in the 1930s – this would place the book in the post WWII time period since Hugh is 18 or 19. Perhaps it is clearly explained at some point and I missed it. No matter. The book has a lovely introduction by Nina Bawden that I just went back and re-read. It sets the tone and helps us understand why this is such an important and good book.
The Norths lead an idyllic life. Ellen and Avery are deeply in love. Ellen’s major challenge seems to be finding enough help – good servants are hard to come by, they live too far out of town for women to want to travel there, and women are less inclined to take a less than ideal help position – so, she makes due with just two half days a week from two different women. This is presented as a major issue for an upper middle class woman like Ellen who must, oh the difficulty!, struggle to feed her husband and self (Anne is at boarding school most of the year) and (goodness!) the four of them when the children are home on vacation. Ellen is a hard-core gardener who loves nothing better than pottering about her beds in gumboots. Adolescent Anne is happy and in love with her horse, Roma. She loves her family (especially her father), loves coming home at breaks, and loves going back to her friend “Pug” at school. Hugh’s leaves (sometimes at unexpected moments) are times of great joy. Their friend, John Bennett, who owns the publishing house for which Avery works (Avery sort of co-manages it) is the family’s best friend. Years ago his wife left him and he has never managed to truly break with her (they are still married) and he adores the Norths who have enfolded him into their family. Avery and Ellen are everyone’s favorite couple – the couple that tells everyone true love and a rock solid marriage are possible.
The fly in the ointment comes when Mrs. North senior – Avery’s crotchety old mother – brings in Louise Lanier, the daughter of a French bookselling couple, to be her companion and refresh her ancient French. Louise is hands-down the most unlikeable character I’ve encountered in a long time. She is young, beautiful, and a complete psychopathic-narcissist. She loves clothes and elegant things and is deeply angry that she wasn’t born into a family that could provide her the lifestyle she was owed. Just off a sordid multi-year, hidden love affair with Paul, a local well-to-do young man in her village, she was furious when he turned around and married another young woman from the town who is a devout Cathelic and definitely the kind of girl you bring home to your parents when you are a bourgeois young Frenchman of this time period. Louise is out for blood. And in the mood to get out of town and be kept in the style to which she feels entitled for awhile, which is why she answers Mrs. North’s ad.
Almost no one likes Louise. She is warm to no one but Mrs. North who adores her as Louise makes a show of helping her improve her outfits and French. Secretly, Louise despises and looks down upon everyone in the North family, but she does appreciate their comfortable, mildly moneyed lifestyle.
From there the story (eventually) takes an expected turn. But there are two important aspects of the way it is told: first, it is beautifully written and second, it is told in an original manner. As the stage begins to be set for Act Two, I felt physical pain for this family. Whipple helped me to become entangled in their story and sympathetic to their problems at a level I rarely feel in a book. I had to set it aside for a bit because of this.
All the characters in this book are fully fleshed out and interesting, if not always sympathetic (Louise is 100% devoid of redeeming features). None of them are stock characters – they all have features that make them stand apart. It was interesting to learn about life in this place and era (fishmongers and bakers and milkmen still came to the back door even though they were out in the country). The village Louise is from is described in beautiful detail.
This was the best book that I’ve read in a long time. After a certain point, I devoured it, trying to make my way through it (286 pages – a mid-size novel) and find out where the story would go. It is, as Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project (another post to come) says, a pure good and evil book, which is rare in adult literature. But the pure good and evil aspect is so well-done! I will definitely read it again and that isn’t something I do with a lot of books. And I look forward to reading more of Whipple’s work in the future.
Now, to the experience of reading it on an ipad. My Kindle (now “Keyboard” was 3G with wifi) weighs 8.7 ounces – a bit more than half a pound. It is lighter and smaller than many books. Amazon designed it to work well with one-handed reading which they figured out is the way most of us tend to read a book. The experience of reading on it is seamless (there are a few things it is hard to do on it – read a book with graphics and charts that have long titles – these may not show up or may run over more than one page, you can’t page ahead easily to see where you are in the book or chapter – although it does tell you what percentage of the book you have read). But overall, reading on my kindle 3 is easy and enjoyable.
My ipad 1 weighs 1.5 lbs plus the apple case weighs 2 oz. This is 1.7 lbs. Nearly 2 lbs! (The ipad 2 is a bit lighter.) Remember, Steve Jobs said “People don’t read anymore.“ So, the ipad was NOT designed for a hard-core reader, although I’ve read “lightly” on it all the time since I got it. I’ve never noticed what an awful reading experience it provides until I actually tried to read a whole book on it and, particularly, read it all in a couple days. Mind you, I love my ipad – it is excellent for putting on your chair-side table and using throughout the day to read and write (short) emails, browse the web, and read short documents. But it is horrible for long-form, lengthy reading.
Mind you, the apple case I use on it is made to stand up a bit as shown in the picture above. But this is a lousy angle for reading at great length, even when I put it on my sturdy lap cushion that angles somewhat also. And if you put it like this, you are reading about one paragraph and it is way spread out on the page and hard to see, so you end up propping it up even more which doesn’t work very well. You can put it vertical (so the smaller side is at the bottom) but then you have to hold it all the time. 1.7 lbs is OK for an hour or so, but over the course of a day in (off and on) the same position, it is murder. My shoulder is still achy. Not something I want to repeat. I don’t plan to read another book on my ipad soon and will avoid choosing books that cause me to have to do so. Which is regrettable because it means that I can’t buy ebooks directly from Powell’s or Persephone unless I want to read them on my imac (which is even worse for my 50 year old eyes and trifocals).
But, the important thing is, I learned something about my gadgets and I found a wonderful new author I love!
Have any of you read Whipple? Who are your favorite authors?
Happy Reading! Ruby