Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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‘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.

 

November, 2015 Book Wrap Up

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Here is a round up of book related favourites for the month of November, 2015. For a glimpse into October, 2015’s Bookish Favourites please see here.

1. Books

 I  read a total of seven books in November. Two of these books, Emily of New Moon and Little House on the Prairie were part of the #ReadKidsLit read along .

1) Emily of New Moon (4/5*) by LM Montgomery. This is the heartwarming tale of a young motherless girl called Emily who has recently lost her beloved father. Emily’s mother’s side of the family draw lots to decide who will have the responsibility of taking care of the young child. Emily goes to stay with her strict Aunt Elizabeth, loving Aunt Laura and friendly Cousin Jimmy at the idyllic location of New Moon Farm on Prince Edward Island. Despite her immense sense of loss, Emily draws comfort from her beautiful surroundings, the friendships she makes at every turn and ultimately her new family.For a full review see here.

2) Martha, Eric and George (4/5*) by Margery Sharp. This is the third book in Margery Sharp’s ‘Martha’ trilogy. In this book we follow the lives of Martha, Eric and George a decade after where ‘Martha in Paris’ left us. We learn of George’s upbringing in the hands of his grandmother, of Eric’s disillusionment at being unable to progress in both the personal and professional spheres of his life and of Martha’s tremendous success as an independent artist. Martha’s success prompts her to show her paintings at an exhibition in Paris. In Paris, Martha, Eric and George meet one another and this book deals with the circumstances and repercussions of the meeting between a mother and a child who have been distanced for a decade.

3) They Were Sisters (4.5/5*) by Dorothy Whipple. Three sisters marry three very different men. Lucy, the eldest is happily married to William. Charlotte, is besotted with Geoffrey who is a cruel, dominating husband and Vera, the beautiful youngest sister marries caring, wealthy Brian, whom she marries for  security. The story deals with the fact that choosing a life partner can have far-reaching consequences, and that this decision can dictate to a large extent a person’s individual happiness and the happiness of their families.Whipple delivers a masterful plot and powerful cast of characters. She creates extraordinary drama and turbulence within the boundaries of everyday domestic occurrences. For a full review see here.

4) Little House on the Prairie (4/5*) by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This story recounts the brave migration of a small family of five, on a small cart and horse laden with all their worldly possessions from the Woods of Wisconsin to the heart of the MidWest. It also describes the trials and difficulties of setting up house as a pioneer family in a land inhabited by wild animals, and unknown dangers, a land they must share with the Native American people.

5) Illyrian Spring (4.5/5*) by Ann Bridge. This book is a part travelogue, part love story set in 1930’s Croatia, along the picturesque Dalmatian Coast. World-renowned artist, thirty-eight year old Lady Kilmachael, the wife of an eminent economist and mother to three grown-up children, leaves her family and all that she holds dear and escapes to Venice and Croatia’s remote Dalmatian Coast. She fears for her marriage, suspecting her husband of embarking on a possible affair and also is saddened by the strained relationship she has with her daughter. In Venice she meets a disillusioned young man, Nicholas, a man on the verge of being coerced into an architectural career by his parents but desperately yearning to paint. By chance, Grace and Nicholas find themselves on the same cruise to the Dalmatian Coast. Grace is persuaded to guide and train Nicholas in his artistic endeavours and together they spend several idyllic weeks together painting and enjoying each other’s company. However, when young Nicholas falls in love with Grace, she finds she must choose between following her better judgement or her heart.

6) Family Roundabout (4.5/5*) by  Richmal Crompton. This Persephone book looks at the complex relationship between two neighboring families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys,  whose outlooks on life, are on one hand in opposition to one another, but on the other hand, find their paths unavoidably intertwined. Both the matriarch’s of the families, keep a close eye on the fates of their beloved families, but employ different styles. Mrs Willoughby, has control of the family fortune, and dictates the actions of her family members by way of controlling the money she bestows upon them. Benevolent Mrs Fowler, watches silently, as her children fall in and out of their individual problems. Most of her children appeal for her help when they require it. But despite, however, much the mothers’ try to resolve their children’s problems, new troubles, recur in cyclical events, almost like a roundabout.

7) The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay. In this vintage crime fiction novel, a large family gathers together in their large family home, in the country during the Christmas season. The head of the family, wealthy Sir Osmond Melbury, is found dead on Christmas Day by a guest, dressed up as Santa Klaus. Everyone in the house has a motive for committing the murder except Santa Klaus himself. However, Santa Klaus is the only person, in the entire house, with the opportunity, or so it would seem…

2. Blogposts

 I published eight blogposts excluding this round-up post this month. Three were reviews of children’s books: The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Green Eggs and Ham and Madeline. The rest included reviews of the books-  Martha in Paris, They Were Sisters, Emily of New Moon and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. I also published The Thoughtful Holiday Gift List for the Booklovers in Your Life.

I wrote a blogpost for Budgettraveller.org describing Fifteen Books that Made me Fall in Love with Europe. In doing so I was able to read and re-read a number of delightful travelogues.

3. Movies

We watched Jim Carrey’s ‘A Christmas Carol‘. This is such a delightful movie to watch around the festive season! The special effects are just magical and conjure a beautiful image of Dickensian London during yuletide. We also watched ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding‘. I saw the film soon after reading the book by Julia Strachey. As a consequence the dialogues in the book were fresh in my mind and were not faithfully repeated in the screenplay. This rather disappointed me, but if watched independently of the book, this is not a bad film. We also commenced watching Season 1, part 2 of the dramatization of Diana Gabaldon’s  ‘Outlander’ series. There is so much drama in this series and very entertaining to follow.

4. Audiobooks

 I listened to the excellent BBC dramatization of Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’ on BBC radio this month. I am also slowly listening to the BBC dramatization of CS Lewis’s excellent Narnia novels. Starting with ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. I also was quite interested in the discussion about Jane Austen’s Emma in an episode of ‘In Our Time‘ hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

5. Miscellaneous

 I indulged in purchasing a few audiobooks this month. These include a series of readings from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire  novels. I also have the recording for  ‘War and Peace‘ at hand. I hope to embark on a reading challenge of sorts next year, centered around either one of these books.

I did a few paintings for my art journal on Instagram. You cnd some examples below.

6. Next Month

Next month I hope to make a dent in my TBR pile. Books that I am looking at are the Mystery in White, Sweet William by Beryl Bainbridge and the illustrated copy of Harry Potter.

Wish you all a happy and bookish, festive December!

Please tell me what you have been reading this month?

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They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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  • Excerpt: Three sisters marry three very different men. Lucy, the eldest is happily married to William. Charlotte, is besotted with Geoffrey who is a cruel, dominating husband and Vera, the beautiful youngest sister marries caring, wealthy Brian, whom she marries for  security. The story deals with the fact that choosing a life partner can have far-reaching consequences, and that this decision can dictate to a large extent a person’s individual happiness and the happiness of their families.
  • Title: They Were Sisters
  • Author: Dorothy Whipple
  • Published: 1943 New York MacMillan, later published by Persephone Books.
  • Location of the story: England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: Lucy (elder sister, married to William), Charlotte (married to Geoffrey), Vera (younger sister, married to Brian).

I was fortunate enough to read an old first edition that my local library managed to procure for me. This was an intense book with so much emotion that it became quite oppressive to read at times. Nevertheless, Whipple delivers such a compelling story line that despite my distress at reading about the most unkind characters and unfortunate circumstances, I was unable to put the book down.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to the Field family. Mr. Field, a lawyer quite suddenly loses his wife to influenza and the responsibility of caring for the large family is transferred to the young shoulders of the eldest daughter of the family, Lucy. Lucy’s siblings include: Harry (the eldest), Aubrey, Jack, Charlotte and Vera. At the time of their mother’s death Charlotte and Vera are just thirteen and eleven years of age.

Lucy sacrifices her entire life to look after the family, a fact that goes largely unappreciated. Charlotte and Vera,love her, but rarely confide in Lucy, preferring to keep their closest secret to themselves. The younger sisters grow up to be beautiful young women, in particular Vera, who draws everyone’s attention the minute she steps into a room. Charlotte falls in love with a young man, Geoffrey Leigh, who delights in partying and playing the fool with her elder brothers. When Charlotte and Geoffrey decide to marry, Vera out of sheer boredom and a need for security marries the attentive,  wealthy, devoted Brian. With Harry and Aubrey emigrating to Canada, Charlotte married and Vera engaged Lucy meets and falls in love with William Moore, at a tennis party.

Soon after Vera’s marriage, Lucy is married herself and goes to live with William in a quaint cottage, in a sleepy village, surrounded by parks and woodland. Despite not having any children, Lucy and William lead a happy, quiet married life, and Lucy finds joy in reading books, taking long walks with her dog and helping the village folk with advice. She is however, very worried by the troubles her sister Charlotte faces in her marriage. Charlotte has three children with Geoffrey and their household is ruled and dominated by high-handed Geoffrey. He critically manages every minute detail of his household, children and wife. He is a manipulative, cruel person who realizes the misery he can produce on other human beings and delights in mentally torturing those around him.He delights in his domination over other human beings. Mostly, he uses devoted Charlotte as his target. In creating the abhorrent character of Geoffrey, Whipple brings to light aspects of domestic cruelty and dominance that may have been prevalent in certain pockets of society, at that time.

Geoffrey’s demeanour is interspersed with  behavioural lapses whereby, he tries to befriend his family again with random acts of kindness.

Geoffrey’s attitude is described in the book in great detail:

Geoffrey’s behaviour went in cycles. He made a violent scene and frightened his family off; he then had an attack and drew them all round him again. Then he was violently good-tempered and took them on a treat.

When I read the book myself, I had periods of anxiety, especially out of compassion for Charlotte. Charlotte, whose nerves are constantly on edge out of fear for Geoffrey’s attacks, takes to drink and anxiety reducing drugs, that slowly but surely, convert her into the shadow of a human being, she once was.

Whipple liken’s Charlotte to a fly described in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories:

Katherine Mansfield wrote a tale about a fly upon which a man, over and over again, idly dropped a great blot of ink. Over and over again the fly struggled out, dried its wings, worked over itself, recovered, became eager to live, even cheerful, only to be covered by another blot. At last, the fly struggled no more; its resistance was broken. Charlotte was like that fly.

As Charlotte sinks further and further into depression and dormancy, Lucy on multiple occasions tries to save her sister, but to no avail. Charlotte has been reduced to a state where she no longer cares about anything, except that she wants to feel numb.

Watching Charlotte, Lucy was sad. She had loved Geoffrey with all her heart. Too much. “You shouldn’t love as much as that,” thought Lucy,”Its a bit abject. You should keep something of yourself.”

Unable to save her sister, Lucy does manage to create a safe environment for Charlotte’s youngest child, a girl by the name of Judith. Every summer, Easter or Christmas holiday, Judith is welcomed by her childless aunt and uncle and this act of care-giving provides Lucy, at least some comfort.

Charlotte’s plight is largely ignored by her younger sister Vera, whom she was very close to as a child. Vera is unimaginably beautiful, self absorbed and permanently bored with her own life. On one occasion she visits her sister Lucy’s small village for a short stay. The sisters get on to a public bus with the other village folk.

The bus was  a rattling contraption in which the passengers sat facing one another. Usually it was full of friendly talk and laughter but this morning when Vera got in, silence fell and remained. Such beauty was an embarrassment, as if everybody were put to shame somehow.

Even though aware of Charlotte’s state of household affairs, Vera fails to pay any attention to her plight. Vera, also ignores her devoted husband and two demanding daughters. After several years, Vera finds herself in dire financial circumstances due to a turn of events. Lucy is equally upset with the state of Vera’s personal life and that of her families but is again unable to help her sister. This is partly due to the fact that Vera is too headstrong take advice from her sister.

At two ends of the spectrum we witness two very different types of domestic cruelty. That of the dominance and manipulation of Charlotte by Geoffrey. Similarly, we find Vera grossly neglecting and ignoring her husband and daughters in a differential show of cruelty. Will there be any sort of retribution for these acts of cruelty? Will Lucy be able to help her sisters?

This is a frustrating story of sorts. It would be impossible to say anymore without giving away more of the story line. It s a harrowing tale and has affected me more than I can say. Whipple delivers a masterful plot and powerful cast of characters. She creates extraordinary drama and turbulence within the boundaries of everyday domestic occurrences.

 

 

 

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

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Title: The Priory

Author: Dorothy Whipple

Published: 1939

Republished by Persephone Books

Setting: Rural Midlands in the Interwar Years

Main Characters: Major Marwood, Anthea Marwood (his second wife), Christine Marwood (elder daughter of Major Marwood), Penelope Marwood (younger daughter of Major Marwood), Nurse Pye, Aunt Victoria (spinster sister of Major Marwood), Mr. James Ashwell (wealthy former mill owner), Nicholas Ashwell (son of James Ashwell).

She saw for the first time that the history of Saunby was a sad one. It had been diverted from its purpose; it had been narrowed from a great purpose to a little one. It had been built for the service of God and the people; all people, but especially the poor.

‘And now it serves only us,’ she thought.

                                                                           – Christine Marwood.

In Dorothy Whipple’s novel, ‘The Priory’ , Saunby Priory is a large landed estate associated with the ruins of a medieval Priory. In olden times, pilgrims had sought rest here, on their way to Canterbury from the North. Kindly monks had allayed their hunger and tiredness with bread, beer and a place to sleep at night. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation the Priory passed on to the Perwyns and thereafter to the Marwood family in 1793.

The story commences a few years prior to the onset of the Second World War. The state of affairs of Major Marwood’s country estate, Saunby Priory, lies as dilapidated as the ancient ruins that lie on the western edge of the manor house. The Major is a widower, his two young daughters, Penelope and Christine, aged 19 and 20, run wild all day on his estate, his elderly sister Victoria is unable to guide his household affairs and he lies on the verge of financial ruin. Every year to save himself and Saunby he sells a small parcel of property associated with his estate. Then, at the august age of fifty, he meets Anthea Sumpton and recognizes in her a woman who to his mind has the ideal characteristics of a second wife, i.e. she is sensible, devoted and no longer young. Importantly, she will in all probability not want to start a family. He marries her so that someone at last will take his household to hand and manage his life: his servants, his children and his annual fortnight of summer cricket.

Anthea Marwood feels that she is an unwanted intruder in the Marwood household.

The occupants of Saunby looked at her when she came into a room as people in a railway carriage look at a traveller who gets in later on the journey. The Marwoods, she was beginning to find out, were the sort of people who like a carriage to themselves

Despite the initial setback Anthea faces, she quite slowly but steadily starts to carve a niche for herself in the household.

Quite early on in the marriage, Major Marwood realizes with dismay that his marriage of convenience is turning out to be very inconvenient for him. Anthea, contrary to plans is expecting a child, an added expense in his mountain of debts. Anthea, focuses all her attention in gathering provisions for her child and securing his/hers future.

In the meantime, in a whirlwind romance, Christine Marwood falls in love with Nicholas Ashwell, son of a wealthy former mill-owner when he visits Saunby during the cricketing fortnight. Their infatuation results in a marriage proposal that Christine accepts. Christine on the eve of her marriage is faced with the unwelcome prospect of leaving Saunby, a place that has been her sanctuary for the entirety of her life.

‘I don’t want to go’ thought Christine…

‘I want to stay here, as I am.’

Nicholas was a stranger. A few months ago she had never heard of him and now she was going away with him, throwing in her lot with his. What was love that it made you think you could live with a stranger? You ought to find out first, you ought to be sure.”

As Christine embarks on a new, unfamiliar life in the coastal seaside town of Mansbridge, she finds herself missing Saunby more and more. She realizes that married life with Nicholas is not enough to fill the gap left in her heart by her absence from Saunby. Her married life is far from idyllic- Nicholas’s idle lifestyle, gaming, drinking and frittering his life away makes her long for her former home more and more.

Whilst visiting Saunby during her sister Penelope’s wedding she is reluctant to go home to Mansbridge and her husband.

There were some black and yellow striped caterpillars that covered the tansy plants at Saunby…If you moved them to another plant they either died or made their way back to the tansy. Christine, noticing them again now, wondered if she was going to be like that about Saunby; unable to live anywhere else.

However, life decides to take a sharp turn for the worse for Christine and she finds herself separated from her husband, each of them fighting their own separate battles under heart wrenching circumstances. Can Saunby save their future, their feeling of self-worth and purpose in life?

It is difficult to summarize the scope of a large 500 page novel like ‘The Priory’ within the space of a few paragraphs. The book is so much more than the collective story of personal incidents, trials and tribulations of a household. Whilst reading the story it is hard to gauge the actual focus of the story. Is ‘The Priory’ the story of Anthea Marwood’s gradual adjustment to her new household, her determination to secure a stable future for her children, the story of Christine Marwood’s move to the Ashwell family at Mansbridge and her yearning for Saunby or is it the story of Nicholas Ashwell’s frustration in life for being nothing more than a rich man’s son incapable of finding his own way in life? ‘The Priory’ is the summation of all these stories and more. It deals us a sharp lesson in the fragility of good fortune in life.

At the heart of the story is the medieval Priory and the attached house at Saunby. Serving the purpose of just a roof over the heads of a single household it is a drain of individual resources and is too large and unruly to manage by a single person. Essentially, ‘The Priory’ is the story of how the future of Saunby Priory might be diverted to recover the livelihoods, dignity and self-worth of a large community of people, united in their purpose. It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.