Someone at a Distance
by Dorothy Whipple
One of the many pleasures of reading a Persephone book (along with the beautifully produced editions and gorgeous endpapers) is the satisfaction of reading a good story well told. I read Someone at a Distance straight after Cloud Atlas and, though I was stunned and awed by David Mitchell's novel, I must admit it was a relief to read a book with a straightforward narrative. It may not be fashionable, but it certainly helps us engage with the characters and become engrossed in the story.
Someone at a Distance is written essentially from the point of view of two of the characters: Ellen is a good woman in early middle-age, wonderfully content with her happy marriage and perfect family, and Louise is the spoilt young French woman who comes to stay and turns it all inside out. There is nothing original about the plot but the characters are beautifully drawn and it is a very affecting read.
The novel also outlines the tragedy of a whole generation of women: as one, rather embittered, character puts it, "We're ordinary women who married too young to get a training and we've spent the best years of our lives keeping house for our husbands" - women who find themselves in middle age, through death or divorce, in desperate circumstances.
It was first published in 1953 and the book reflects the values of the era - in the sometimes quaint dialogue, the unashamed Francophobia and the expectations of the characters. Yet the basic story is still, sadly, all too familiar, and the novel provoked long and interesting discussions in our group. To what extent can a betrayed husband or wife be held responsible for what happened? Is forgiveness appropriate or helpful? And, how have our moral values changed in the past 50 years?
This edition has endpapers from a 1950's Sanderson textile design and an excellent preface by Nina Bawden.