‘Someone At a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple is the story of a young French girl called Louise Lanier. Born of hard-working, simple parents who have worked happily all their lives as small booksellers in the small French town of Amigny, they have never climbed high in the social ladder, much to the chagrin of their aspiring daughter. Based on this lack of pedigree, Louise is jilted by her secret, longtime sweetheart: the son of the town squire who decides to marry a woman from a reputed family instead. Broken-hearted, but refusing to show it, Louise escapes to England to serve as a companion to a wealthy, old lady called Mrs. North.
Mrs. North lives near to her son Avery, a prosperous publisher and his family, consisting of his wife Ellen, daughter Anne and son Hugh.
Avery North and his family have the perfect life. He is a devoted father. He is admired and respected in his publishing firm. He and his wife Ellen have a trusting, committed relationship. And then all of a sudden cool, calculated and beautiful Louise steps into their lives…
Louise needs to preoccupy her mind and at first is unsure of how to engage herself. Finding nothing better to do, she takes charge of old Mrs. North’s dressing, paying attention to every little detail of adornment. Mrs. North is charmed with the attention that the young French girl pays her and grows to care and depend on her.
Mrs. North gifts the French girl a diamond ring upon her return to France. But even Louise is surprised when Mrs. North leaves a considerable amount of money to Louise in her will.
Louise returns to England to claim the bequest for herself. Unwillingly, Avery and Ellen North let her into their perfect home but Louise shows no signs of leaving. She is jealous of the Norths’ happiness, of the love they share in their small family and she is determined to ruin it.
When Ellen discovers the affair that is going on in the very same house that she lives in, she is shell shocked. It seems impossible to her that her devoted, loving husband could forsake all that he holds dear, to be with a callous, cruel young woman.
In her moment of strife she looks towards religion but can find no comfort.
“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?”
Avery does not return to her. Ellen regards his desertion as a sign of his love for Louise but nothing could be further from the truth. He despises Louise and takes to drink to drown his sorrows and to forget that he has lost everything that he holds dear.
He marries Louise out of his need to cling to someone and Louise holds onto him for financial gain.
Ultimately it is a situation where no-one is happy. Is there retribution for Louise? Are Avery and Ellen able to reconcile their differences? I will leave you to find out.
The book is a story about adultery. It is a story about a husband’s weakness, a wife’s short-sightedness and a young, ambitious girl’s yearning to rise up from her provincial upbringing and to destroy the happiness of others. But the book is more than the sum total of these individual parts and the title reveals this.
The title ‘Someone At a Distance’ is a curious one. It is only towards the latter part of the novel that the significance of the title emerges and one realizes it has been used with much thought.
The title deals with the idea that a person’s negative actions and thoughts can have a far-reaching consequence on the lives of people far removed from them. It is like a ripple effect. A strong undercurrent of ill-will may wreak havoc on the hitherto peaceful lives of people on distant shores. Such is the inter-connectedness of the world and its people.
This is a beautiful book. I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable. Whipple’s storytelling is superlative. The psychological tension she develops in taut situations can be felt acutely. When Ellen grieves in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion, which has been dealt to her out of no wrong-doing of her own, we grieve along with her. We feel and comprehend her every emotion. We sympathize with her and we yearn for her strength and salvation. On the opposite side of the spectrum we despise Louise’s every movement and intention. And we hope and pray for some kind of justice. Whipple manipulates our emotional well-being, during the reading of the novel to good effect and delivers yet another stellar story.