“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.'” — Carmen Callil
A few years back, reading Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide got me thinking about “books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” The Dark Tide, I concluded, was of the second sort: conspicuously flawed but energetic and purposeful in a way that made me want to engage with it. Reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone At A Distance made me wonder: can a book be good and yet also uninteresting? What would that mean, exactly, for any reasonable definition of “good”? Reverting, as I often do, to George Henry Lewes’s remarks about Jane Austen—that she was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end”—maybe what it means is that a book can be good on its own terms (the means to its end), but that those terms (that end) might not be particularly challenging or complex.*
In the end, that’s what I felt about Someone At A Distance. It read very easily: its interlocking stories of an English family and the young French woman who infiltrates and then destroys it are neatly executed; its people are sharply delineated; the consequences of the affair are believably painful, especially for the blindsided Ellen, who up to the very moment her husband Avery’s betrayal is revealed has thought herself the happiest of wives. She is wholly unprepared for a life without him at its center. “We’re not the new sort of women,” an unlikely ally later tells her,
with University degrees in Economics, like those women who speak on the Radio nowadays, girls who can do anything. 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. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, but now you’re out on your ear like me at over forty.
Whipple conveys Ellen’s shock and grief with real pathos. She also does a good job with Ellen and Avery’s daughter Anne, knocked abruptly out of her childhood idyll by these adult complications:
They stood in the morning sunlight, looking at each other, and from her mother’s face Anne learned, in another lesson, that the grown-up world was not what she had thought it was, not a place of power and fulfilment, but a place of helplessness, pain and ugliness. A world not to enter. Until now, Anne had run joyfully forward, but now she was halted. She shrank back. She had learnt suspicion and distrust and most of all the fear of life that sickens the youthful heart and from which it takes too long to recover, if recover it does.
That’s all pretty well done, I think, and the unfolding of Ellen’s gradual recovery in counterpoint with Avery’s bitterness and regret carries the novel nicely through to its conclusion.
But. It really doesn’t do more than tell this story. There aren’t any layers to it. The characters are fairly two dimensional, especially the French temptress Louise, who to me was the novel’s weakest element. She’s a selfish narcissist who takes what she wants for her own gratification. The whole catastrophe, in fact, is the result of her resentment at an old lover in her home town in France, himself blithely ignorant “that he, at such a distance, could have had anything to do with the breaking up of that family” or with the rift that opens up between Louise and her own parents. Her unmitigated nastiness sapped the novel of any chance of a real moral or emotional dilemma at its center: Avery is wrong to get involved with her and that’s that. Whipple plays out the moves on the board she has set up, but there’s nothing in it for us to think about: we just follow it all through to the end. And that is just not a terribly interesting exercise: Ellen is a bit of a limp noodle, and the solution that unfolds to her problem of finding her own place in the world is too pat, too easy.
I did enjoy Someone At A Distance in the moment, but I also found myself comparing it unfavorably to another much better book (in my opinion) about an affair, Joanna Trollope’s Marrying the Mistress. In Trollope’s novel the “mistress” is a genuinely sympathetic character; the relationship that develops creates a genuine tension for the husband and then, eventually, for his children, who can’t help but like his new partner in spite of their loyalty to their mother; and the marriage that ends, while not a bad one, has weak spots that made it vulnerable—indeed, that maybe even made its end, while painful, a change worth bringing about. Yet even though her mistress is not an evil temptress, Trollope is less sentimental about love, and less blandly optimistic about fixing what has been broken. Someone At A Distance ends with the promise of restoration, but why? Knowing what she now knows about her husband, what is that promise worth to Ellen? I didn’t really care, though: by that point I was ready to be finished with her.
I guess for me the bottom line (my version of the Whipple line?) is that competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short than a novel that doesn’t do more than Someone At A Distance, no matter how well it’s done. I think Carmen Callil may have been on to something with her disparagement of Whipple as not quite good enough. And yet I can’t argue with the introduction, which praises Whipple’s ability to “take an ordinary tale and make it compulsive reading.”
*I am not saying Austen is not great! Just that the idea of suiting means to end is a useful way to gauge literary success.