‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, famously and quite magnificently, in Howards End. ‘If only we didn’t all connect’ seems to be the sentiment of Dorothy Whipple’s rather less famous Someone at a Distance.
In Howards End various characters recognise a common bond with others outside their immediate social circle. There is Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, for instance, and Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox, whose bond is symbolised in their mutual appreciation of the house of the title, Howards End.
Someone at a Distance is also about how we are all connected, how our actions radiate out and touch others, strangers, with their effect. Towards the end of the novel, Whipple writes the following:
He had never heard of the Norths, far away in England. He would have been amazed at the suggestion that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking-up of that family. He had no idea that it was, in great measure, because of him that the man he had seen on the pavement in front of the Hotel de l’Ecu that afternoon had lost everything he cared about.
Whereas Forster encourages connection, causing his readers to frown upon Henry Wilcox for refusing to help Leonard Bast, for Whipple this connection is full of menace.
Someone at a Distance focuses on the North family, who live a life of post-war domestic bliss. Avery commutes from their village to his London office at a small publishing house, while Ellen devotes every moment of her life to making a happy home, rushing around cooking, gardening, filling hot water bottles. They have two children – Hugh, who is in the army, and Anne who is at boarding school and loves her horse to pieces. Nearby, lives Avery’s mother, cantankerous ‘old Mrs North’.
At first, I wondered if this would be a kind of Mariana novel – about an improbably rosy domestic life, where everyone larks around laughing in the sunshine, calling each other ‘darling’. We are treated to rather a lot of scenes like this:
Anne North had spent the first day of the summer holidays lying blissfully in the garden under the cherry tree because it had been too hot to do anything else. But after supper it was cool enough to do as she always did on her first day at home, which was to go out on Roma, the mare, with her father wobbling along on the old bicycle, never used for any other purpose, beside her.
But it’s not long before a stranger disrupts the happy scene. Louise Lanier, a dangerous and determined young lady from a small town in France, moves in to be old Mrs North’s companion. Recovering from heartbreak, she is bored of her provincial life in France and can’t bring herself to accept her fate to marry the local chemist. She has come to England to put this off for a little while, and, one suspects, to wreak havoc.
Louise is a 1950s Emma Bovary, a comparison which Whipple makes explicit:
The only character in literature for whom she felt profound sympathy, with whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.
The scene is set for Louise to make a play for Avery. But Whipple is a fine mistress of suspense. She draws it out, sending Louise back to France for a while, letting us breathe a sigh of relief, before making her return, while we gnaw our nails in dread. A strange, unnerving few months unfold where Louise doesn’t quite destroy the domestic bliss of the Norths, but rattles it, like a child testing a toy’s sturdiness before hurling it to the ground. How much will it take, how much can it stand, Whipple seems to be asking, how long before Avery will fall?
The moment when Ellen and Anne discover Avery and Louise’s affair is one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature. I read it holding my breath, so painful is it, so shocking, so perfectly does Whipple capture the horror. Anne and Ellen are walking down to buy sweets from the village shop, when Ellen remembers she has left letters for the post behind. They go back to get them.
They arrived together at the open french windows of the sitting-room.
On the sofa was Avery with Louise.
As Ellen and Anne stood staring at them, their smiles died slowly, so that all the blood had drained away from their faces while they were still almost smiling.
The embrace endured. It should have had no witness.
Suddenly aware, Avery looked up. No one moved. The little clock ticked. A petal fell from a rose in a vase. Her head hanging back, her mouth open, Louise opened her eyes.
What should last only a moment stretches on for an eternity. There is time for their smiles to die ‘slowly’, for the embrace to ‘endure’. Time beats on, ‘the little clock ticked’, and yet ‘no one moved’, they are motionless victims of this slow agonising death, until, in a hideous pose of ecstasy, Louise opens her eyes.
What has Ellen done to deserve this? Why has Louise decided to ruin the lives of the North family? ‘Only connect’ is the answer. Ellen suffers thanks to Louise’s heartbreak at the hands of a young Frenchman, who Ellen has never met. What a terrifying, alarming consequence of this connection. ‘Someone at a distance’ – a very great distance – can profoundly change your life, and not for the better.
Having this idea of a complex, far-reaching web of connection at the heart of the novel gives meaning to its rather rambling structure. I wondered for a while why Whipple chose to leap from an English village to a French one, from one big house to another, from Anne’s school to Avery’s office and from Louise’s parents’ kitchen to her ex-lover’s salon. Why is it there is such an enormous cast of characters, who are all made so lifelike? This web, these connections and their consequences make it all make sense. Whipple needs all these characters, all these places, to point out that they are all connected, everything links together, everyone is at risk from the rippling actions of another.
I decided to read Someone at a Distance having heard Nicola Beauman, of Persephone Books give a very inspiring talk. I came away with a list of authors I felt I absolutely had to read and top of that list was Dorothy Whipple. (Poor lady having such an extraordinary name, forcing the inescapable recollection of delicious Walnut Whip chocolates.)
The only thing I’d heard of Dorothy Whipple, before this talk, was that Virago – notoriously – refused to republish her. As Carmen Callil explained to the Guardian, a few years ago:
We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: “Below the Whipple line.”
I have to say that Virago, on this rare occasion, were wrong. Whipple is a tremendous storyteller. Not only does she achieve the feat of keeping you utterly gripped by something so quiet and interior, but she uses language so skilfully. One of her tricks of which I grew particularly fond was her habit of using metaphors perfectly suited to each character. For instance, Ellen loves gardening, so she gets the following:
There was something fruitful about this scheme, thought Ellen later. It kept budding and branching all the time.
Whereas, for the two gossiping cleaning ladies:
They wrung every drop of interest out of the topic, as if it had been one of the floor-cloths they also shared at Netherfold. They wrung it out and left it. Later they would pick it up again, soak it in their mutual interest and pass it from one to the other as before.
It’s a clever touch.
Someone at a Distance is a brilliant novel. I wonder if Forster ever read it. I think he would have welcomed this rejoinder to his ‘only connect’, which shows its horribly dark and threatening flipside. He would certainly have appreciated Whipple’s rendering of the vulnerability of English domesticity. Really it a gem of a novel – thank you Persephone Books for rescuing it from obscurity.