“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.
“…competence in story-telling, and even in characterization, isn’t enough. I’d rather read a more ambitious novel that falls short…” rang true for me. Too many novels I read these days are novels I’m well tired of by the time I finish them. About halfway through I’ve figured out what the author is doing, and she continues to do just that very thing and nothing else for the next two hundred pages while I watch the plot play out and the characters get pushed around by the needs of the plot. Neither I nor the author, I am sure, are ever surprised by anything that happens. I have a theory that many writers are excited by the creation of premises, setting, and character, but are actually bored by the writing out of a novel, because such a novel, as you say of the Whipple, “really doesn’t do more than tell this story.” There is not much going on but the filling in of a template and the fleshing out of a three-act structure. Art that abides has a greater reach than this, a vision beyond the minimum standards of a well-formed novel. And great art tends to be messy and is sometimes even shot through with confusion.
I don’t know where I’d draw my personal “Whipple line,” though I’ve been giving a good deal of thought over the last couple of days to what I might suppose my minimum standards would be. At least every Virago Classic I’ve read is above the line. Not much of the contemporary American fiction I’ve read would make that cut, alas.
I know what you mean about getting the sense of a template being filled in. I think that even pretty formulaic fiction can be enjoyable, diverting, well done — and there’s a place for that in my reading life, for sure. I wonder if I had higher expectations for Whipple because of Persephone Books (where she is kind of a patron saint) and the more general trend today to celebrate “underappreciated” or lost classics, that kind of thing. Not every writer whose day came and went deserves to be rediscovered. I haven’t read any other Whipple so I can’t really say overall! But your point about Virago is well taken: Persephone begins quite literally where Virago left off and maybe, at least sometimes, that shows.
I’ve been thinking about this, but slow to get around to comment. I guess what I wonder, reading this, is whether this book is really good if it doesn’t interest you in its characters. (And of course it can be hard to say just how much of this is in the book vs. in the reader).
In part I’m pondering the different ambitions of different kinds of novels, I guess. Because I wonder if Whipple’s kind of middle-brow fiction (and I haven’t read her) is the equivalent of today’s commercial or genre fiction (women’s fiction, chick lit, romance, mystery, etc.). What kind of ambition does a reader ask of those books? They are often predictable and not always layered, though they certainly can be. Very flawed books in these genres can be beloved by readers because they have some kind of energy in the story telling (even if predictable) or characters that keeps you turning the pages. And that seems to be what this book ultimately lacked for you. So . . . is that one key definition of “good” in this kind of story? It’s a much harder element to define or locate, I think, than things like bad sentences and incoherent plots.
This is a very helpful comment, except that it isn’t at the same time, because I did feel some energy and I did keep turning the pages, so that isn’t quite what was wrong or missing. Maybe this just proves your point about whatever it is that is harder to define in what we think makes a book “good.” The novel did lose some of its force for me the minute it became clear that “the other woman” was purely a malevolent intruder: there was no conflict, as a result. I guess that could be called a craft error! I was mildly engaged by seeing how the characters Whipple had created would play out the scenario she’d set up, and I actually thought overall her prose was better than fine. But I started rereading Marrying the Mistress this morning to test my recollection that it is better, and it really is. (And I say this as someone who has not much liked a Joanna Trollope novel in quite a while – very hit or miss, in my experience.)
I think you are right to point to ambition as one of the ways we measure success. Sometimes reading rediscovered classics I suspect we as readers have tried to make them more ambitious than they actually are, in order to justify our reclamation efforts (which at their best are exciting and vital, but at their worst are an uncomfortable form of literary hipsterism – my thing is more obscure than the thing other people like!).
Having just read Someone At A Distance, I was mulling over how I felt about it and was glad to come to your post which I think sums up my reaction well. I think the book often seemed like it might become more interesting than it is. It reminded me a bit of some of Iris Murdoch’s novels, but lacking some of the authorial control and with it the ability to surprise, and not demonstrating the deep thinking of Murdoch’s best work.
I also found the end of the book a little crudely moralistic – the idea of Ellen finding herself in a community of women is at least quietly radical in its way, which makes her essentially forgiving her contrite husband somewhat anticlimactic. Furthermore, Louise’s gradual descent into stock villainy was a bit disappointing given that I found her interesting and at least somewhat sympathetic at the beginning, as a young woman jilted by her lover for someone of higher class.