The Whipple Line: Someone At A Distance

whipple“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 Austenthat 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.

whipple-3But. 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.

trollopeI 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 vulnerableindeed, 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.

Margaret Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon

Despite being endlessly distracted by the continuing coverage of the Egyptian protests on Al Jazeera as well as by finishing up a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for the February issue of Open Letters Monthly, I did manage to finish my second Margaret Kennedy novel (her first), The Ladies of Lyndon, in time for the end of Virago Reading Week. Perhaps because of those distractions–though I don’t rule out the possibility that the book itself is at fault–I don’t feel I have really grasped what ideas or interests are at the center of this novel. Like The Constant Nymph, it has left me perplexed, and I actually found The Constant Nymph (odd as it was) more emotionally involving, though both are written with the same flat affect or understatement. Nobody in The Ladies of Lyondon is developed very deeply, including the putative main character, Agatha Clewer, whose marriage frames the novel. As in The Constant Nymph, our attention is spread across a range of other characters and subplots, and my expectation in such a case is that (as would happen in a Trollope novel) these will turn out to be related like some kind of theme and variations–but I can’t seem to see through the miscellany of this novel to that central theme. Perhaps that is the wrong model, and the unity (assuming for now that the novel is unified) arises from contiguity rather than coherence, which I suppose is how most aspects of people’s real lives are in fact related. In any case, I admit to not finding it a very compelling novel on this initial read. Perhaps as I write a bit more about it I will find my way to something more interesting. Also, I expect to find my bearings as I read more by and about Kennedy–there is often a kind of disconnect between my expectations and a new flavor of novel, after all.

One aspect that I think deserves further consideration is Kennedy’s emphasis on art and her interest in artists. The value and integrity of art is a major concern of The Constant Nymph too, though in that novel music matters most, whereas in The Ladies of Lyndon the artist character is a painter. We never get a detailed account of what his work looks like, but we are repeatedly told that people don’t like to look at it. At one point someone wonders if he might be a cubist, I think. Yet it can’t be significantly experimental, or at least it is representational enough that one major plot sequence turns on his incorporating portraits of family members into a classically-themed mural he has done (a satirical gesture at the expense of the nouveau riche brother-in-law who commissioned it). The artist, James, is also “mentally deficient”–0r is he? He is introduced this way initially and treated this way by most of his family, but by the end it isn’t clear that there was ever anything really amiss with him beyond noncomformity and an inability (or a refusal) to meet social expectations (if the novel had been first published this year, he would probably be counted in the small but growing group of “Aspie” characters). In The Constant Nymph dedication to art stands as an honorable (if often uncomfortably idiosyncratic) alternative to social conventions and materialism. There’s something of that in The Ladies of Lyndon too. For one thing, James makes the only good marriage we see–and he does so by marrying ‘outside’ his class (he marries a servant) and establishing himself at his wife’s level rather than raising her to his: they both accept this as the more natural and comfortable plan, and the moral and social independence it gives them is refreshing compared to the posturing of most of the other characters. There’s no sign that they influence anyone or anything, though: they just go off and do their thing, and also (again unlike the other characters) they reproduce energetically, which I suppose is one way of endorsing their unassuming radicalism, or at least hinting that it is the way of the future.

The title to the novel, and the introduction in the Virago edition, both point to Lyndon as an important symbol in the novel. Here’s a bit from the introduction (by Nicola Beauman):

And it is Lyndon which is the symbol of the change which creeps over both Agatha and the world: after the war it represents the sloughed-off skin of England’s past. It can no longer be the greedy, devouring ‘shring of ease’ it had once been. It can either disintegrate, adjust to the ‘sensible’ values of post-war life or become a Braxhall. . . . The war is shown to have wrought enormous, totally unexpected changes. Lyndon has to change, Agatha changes, the Sir Thomas Bragges of this world are in the ascendant. . . .

OK, in retrospect that sounds plausible (I read the introduction after the novel) but to be honest, I didn’t pick up on the significance of the house at all. I would have put the emphasis on the other key word in the title, ‘Ladies’: the novel surveys the personalities and choices of a motley collection of women related, one way or another, to each other. But the survey strikes me as cursory, and though there is some talk of what makes a good marriage (really, the only substantial choice any of them makes is of a partner), none of the women, and none of the marriages, and not even the adulterous liaison that gives just a little scandalous momentum to the novel, was drawn out enough for me to care particularly. Flat, as I said, and just a little dull, except for the eccentricity of its bits and pieces.

One sign of my difficulties making The Ladies of Lyndon meaningful is that I couldn’t focus on any particular passages to flag: my trademark post-its are stuck in sort of perfunctorily, mostly at what I took to be key developments in the plot–to help me find them again!–whereas usually I use them to trace interesting patterns or themes that emerge.  I also can’t settle on any passage worth quoting, though as I flip through once more I don’t see anything specifically wrong with the book either. Is it possible that my Margaret Kennedy project will lead me to the conclusion that she is justly forgotten as a novelist? Well, that hardly seems a fair prediction based on just two of her sixteen books, and early ones at that. Tomorrow I’ll read the chapter on her in Susan Leonardi’s Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, and maybe that will help me frame her writing in the way that brings out its significant qualities. I’ve also taken a later novel of hers, Together and Apart, off the shelf. If at first you don’t succeed…. In the meantime, if any of you out there have given any thought to Margaret Kennedy in general or The Ladies of Lyndon in particular, I’d be interested in hearing from you!

From the Archives: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April

As part of Virago Reading Week, Danielle at A Work in Progress has written a lovely post on Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer:

This is a book that could easily be devoured, but I’d rather take my time and savor it.  I was reading it at work in our break room, but it was so noisy I shut the book and set it aside preferring to take it somewhere quiet where I could escape into its pages.  I wish I could spend my summer this way.

May 2nd–Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, ‘I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life.  I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.  Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told I am out, or away, or sick.  I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests.  I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes.  On wet days I will go into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds.  I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me.  Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace”

There’s much to be said about silence, don’t you think?  I already think there is too much noise in the world and so much more than in von Arnim’s day.  But I especially like the idea of the sort of silence you would find in a garden–not a complete silence, but the sort of hum you would find in nature.  I’ll be taking my book to peaceful, quiet corners and imagining the solitude von Arnim writes about.

In another post Danielle mentions how much she enjoyed von Arnim’s The Enchanted April; I followed her link to her earlier review of that novel, which in turn sent me browsing through my own archives until I found my comments on it. It’s hard to believe it has been more than three years since I read it, as the pleasure it gave me is still very vivid in my reading memory. Here’s what I wrote then, reproduced not because what I think what I had to say was particularly eloquent or original, but because it’s nice to linger a little in thoughts of love and flowers on this cold day.

The Enchanted April is delightful. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected, light but touching, warm but poignant. Without extended explicit social commentary, it shows its women realizing, emotionally more than intellectually, how the constraints of their usual world confine them, but also how they contribute to their own diminishment. More than the movie version, the novel maintains some skepticism about the rapprochement of the women and their husbands (for instance, we always know, though Lotty doesn’t, that Mellersh is well-behaved mostly because he hopes to gain clients, and we also know the comedy of errors that nearly erupted because Frederick comes to see the wrong woman). But what I wasn’t expecting was the marvellously tactile quality of von Armin’s prose:

The cherry-trees and peach-trees were in blossom–lovely showers of white and deep rose-colour among the trembling delicacy of the olives; the fig-leaves were just big enough to smell of figs, the vine-buds were only beginning to show. And beneath these trees were groups of blue and purple irises, and bushes of lavendar, and grey, sharp cactuses, and the grass was thick with dandelions and daisies, and right down at the bottom was the sea. Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers…

The obvious comparison is with A Room with a View (and I learned from the afterword in my edition that Forster tutored von Arnim’s children for a time). But this novel is about adults coming to terms with their lives and loves, and so it has more wistfulness, and more lurking pathos, than Forster’s. I loved Mrs Fisher’s gradual emergence from what Lotty calls her “cocoon” (even if it is, like Lucy’s awakening in A Room with a View, basically at the expense of the Victorians): “Her great dead friends [Ruskin, Arnold, Tennyson…] did not seem worth reading that night. . . . No doubt they were greater than any one was now, but they had this immense disadvantage, that they were dead. Nothing further was to be expected of them; while of the living, what might one not still expect?” The afterword remarks, rather unexpectedly, “The novel is the lightest of omelettes, in the making of which the least possible number of eggs gets broken. Only an incorrigible pedant would try to judge it at a deeper level.” Well, call me incorrigible, and a pedant (I’ve been called worse, goodness knows), but I enjoyed the novel so much it lit a little spark of scholar’s curiosity in me and made me curious to look up a former M.A. student of mine I haven’t heard from in a while whom I recall had proposed a Ph.D. project on von Arnim. It also (especially in combination with our first snow of the season) made me dream of going back to Italy!

(Danielle and I are both reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda‘s January session. There really is something comforting about escaping into thoughts of summer when the view outside is all ice and slush!)

Virago Reading Week

A little while back, when I mentioned my plan to read through a bunch of Virago Modern Classics while on sabbatical, beginning with Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph, Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books (I love that you can tell she’s Canadian by the ‘u’ in ‘Favourite’) wrote to let me know that she was co-hosting a Virago Reading Week. It began Monday, and there’s all kinds of related activity and lots of links to follow up at Carolyn’s blog. Carolyn has also compiled a very helpful list of Virago authors, and through the links on her site I discovered that another blogger has compiled a list of Virago (and Persephone) titles that are available online, many for free. One of the earliest reviews to go up as part of this Virago venture is this nice piece on Antonia White’s Frost in May, itself the first Virago Modern Classic published (in 1978):

Since the entire book is narrated from Nanda’s point of view it’s a good thing she’s observant. She uses the sharp gaze of an outsider, for not only is she a convert, she is also middle-class. But “Lippington,” as the school is known, is the favored educational venue for a kind of borderless European aristocracy. The glamorous girls are Spanish, Irish, Franco-German, and feature cardinals and abbesses on their family trees. Nanda, though accepted as a friend, can never share their easy identification as members of the one True Church.

But as we might guess from the title, this is an education gone awry. White is sharp about the power the nuns exert over their charges, the surveillance and what we might call emotional blackmail. The founding principle of the school is the breaking of a child’s character so that it may be re-formed in a manner more pleasing to God. This is the “frost” of the title, of course.

But is there more to the tale than the humiliation and grief visited upon a young girl?  Nanda is well-drawn, but the secondary characters — those glamorous aristocratic Catholic girls — tend to be endowed with marvelous heads of hair and a few tics. The nuns are stock figures as well, remote and manipulative. (Rumer Godden does a much better job of seeing beyond the habit.) White’s hurt and outrage are fresh, but they are the only note she sounds. (read the whole post here, at Carol Wallace’s blog Book Group of One)

Quite a collection of other book bloggers have made plans to read and review Virago titles including E. M. Delafield’s Thank Heaven Fasting, Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Solitary Summer, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, and Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter–and so many more that it’s probably best, if you have other work or reading to do, not to spend too much time browsing the possibilities. I don’t notice much mention of Margaret Kennedy, though. My modest Virago Reading Week plan is to keep on with her first novel, The Ladies of Lyndon, which (obviously) she wrote before The Constant Nymph but which was not much of a success until after Nymph caught the public fancy. The introduction to The Ladies of Lyndon basically promises that the novel will live up to its underwhelming debut. I guess I’ll find out.

Recent Reading: Atkinson, Greene, Kennedy, Simonson

I have been reading quite a lot, thanks to being on sabbatical, but the irony is that I feel a little overwhelmed and unfocused now, sitting down to try to say something about the books! It may be not so much the quantity of reading, which isn’t really overwhelming; it’s more the motley assortment. But I’m already moving on to the next ones, so if I don’t write at least something now, these ones will recede into the mists of my increasingly imperfect memory. So.

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog. I enjoyed reading this instalment in Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series almost as much as I enjoyed the first three–almost. Atkinson is fiercely good at characterization and scene setting, and she takes a theme-and-variations approach to plot, so that the overlapping or intersecting stories she tells relate to each other thematically as well as chronologically or historically. The result (as Miriam Burstein explains better and in more detail in her post on this novel) is a book that tests and even refuses some of the conventions of mystery fiction as a genre. This time I found myself starting to get impatient with Atkinson, though: the book seemed to me to lack a certain tautness and the plot served so conspicuously as a vehicle for presenting her cleverly conceived characters that I wondered why she didn’t let go of the pretense of the genre altogether. I realize there may seem to be a certain inconsistency in this, as I have been known to complain about the dully formulaic nature of a lot of mystery novels, and my own reading preference is certainly for those that let go of the constraints of the ‘puzzle’ form and raise the literary stakes–as, for instance, P. D. James and Ian Rankin do. But James has always been explicit that she likes the basic form of the detective novel because of the clear structure it provides, which enables and supports elaboration. I thought Started Early, Took My Dog, with its diffuse attention, nearly fell off the scaffolding.

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. I’ll write more about this after my book group meets tomorrow night to discuss it. It certainly follows on in an interesting way on our last reading, Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved: both books are about priests struggling to express and act on their faith according to their own principles when circumstances conspire against them. But the tone of Greene’s book is altogether darker and I founds its idea(l) of religion altogether more elusive. Where is God, in this novel? What are we to make of the whiskey priest, who hardly seems to have a calling or a vocation–indeed, it’s not clear what, exactly, he still believes in–and yet cannot turn his back on what he believes to be his duty, even when he knows it will cost him his life? Are we to read him as a martyr? What kind of a faith is it that glorifies an existence so squalid and pathetic? Where is the power, or the glory?

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph. This is the first in the cluster of novels by Margaret Kennedy that I’m reading for my little Virago Modern Classics project (mentioned here). I knew almost nothing about Kennedy when I started it, and at this point I feel I know hardly any more now. It’s a very odd novel, nothing like what I expected. For a long time I couldn’t figure out who was the nymph of the title–I was only certain at the end, and then after I went back and looked up the blurb on the Virago website, as my library copy has no jacket information, no introduction, nothing at all to help me figure this weird thing out. The novel’s plot centers on the eccentric family of Albert Sanger (his “circus,” as everyone calls it). Convinced he could not flourish in England, Sanger has exiled himself to Europe and raised his miscellaneous offspring quite free of the inhibitions and values of “civilized” life. The one value they all recognize is music, or perhaps art more generally; they take really nothing else seriously at all. On Sanger’s death his second wife’s relatives step in to act as guardians to the younger children; the cousin who comes out to collect them falls in love with one of Sanger’s friends, another misunderstood musical genius, and their marriage creates the tensions that carry the novel along to its conclusion. Love, in this novel, is not a mutually beneficial or fulfilling relationship but seems to manifest itself almost entirely through a peculiar kind of worship directed by women towards brilliant, creative, anti-social men. Kennedy’s take on this is satirical, I think, but I’m not entirely sure because I found her tone difficult to interpret: she writes with a fairly flat affect, and the only times she rises into anything like compelling language is when she writes about music, which suggests she may, in fact, be aligned, or align the book, more with those who worship the muse than with those who seek worldly compromises. Reading more of her novels may help me get my interpretive bearings better. There’s hardly any critical work on her to help me out, but I have a book coming through interlibrary loan on the Somerville College novelists (of which she was one).

Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I really enjoyed reading this novel but in the end I think it’s a near miss. It prompted lots of wry laughs, and approaches questions of cultural difference and misunderstanding in a nicely muted and nuanced way, allowing its characters to make fools of themselves rather than setting them up as targets for the novelist’s (or protagonist’s) rebukes–at her best, Simonson handles this much as, say, Jane Austen does, allowing us to enjoy our superiority as we root for the happiness of Major Pettigrew and Mrs Ali. The lead up to the dinner/dance–the theme of which, the ladies of the club decide, is to be “An Evening at the Mughal Court”–and then the calamitous events of that night, are beautifully handled. Here’s a little excerpt that will give you an idea of the artfully artless style of the book:

“We were reminded of the story of your father and his brave service to the Maharajah. We’ve decided to do it in three or four scenes. It’ll be the perfect core of our entertainment.”

“No, no, no,” the Major said. He felt quite faint at the idea. “My father was in India in the thirties and early forties.”

“Yes?” said Daisy.

“The Mughal Empire died out around 1750,” said the Major, his exasperation overcoming his politeness. “So you see it doesn’t go at all.”

“Well, it’s all the same  thing,” said Daisy. “It’s all India, isn’t it?”

“But it’s not the same at all,” said the Major. “The Mughals–that’s Shah Jehan and the Taj Mahal. My father served at Partition. That’s the end of the English in India.”

“So much the better,” said Daisy. “We’ll just change ‘Mughal’ to ‘Maharajah’ and celebrate how we gave India and Pakistan their independence. Dawn of a new era and all that. I think it’s the only sensitive option.”

“That would solve the costume problem for a lot of people,” said Alma. “I was trying to tell Hugh Whetstone that pith helmets weren’t fully developed until the nineteenth century, but he didn’t want to hear it. If we add an element of ‘Last Days,’ they can wear their ‘Charles Dickens’ summer dresses if they prefer.” […]

“Partition was 1947,” said the Major. “People wore uniforms and short frocks.”

“We’re not trying to be rigidly historical, Major,” said Daisy.

At the event itself, Mrs Ali’s deadpan responses offset the absurdity perfectly:

“The Maharajah’s wife throws herself upon the protection of the British officer,” said Daisy’s voice again. “He is only one man, but by God he is an Englishman.” A round of cheers broke out in the audience.

“Isnt’ it exciting?” said Mrs Jakes. “I’ve got goose bumps.”

“Perhaps it’s an allergic reaction,” said Mrs. Ali in a mild voice. “The British Empire may cause that.”

The relationship between the upright, stiff, but good-hearted Major, with his old world courtesy and literary inclinations, and the astute but reticent outsider Mrs Ali is developed at once believably and sympathetically. Simonson does well with her secondary characters too, particularly the Major’s insufferable son and his American girlfriend–who is, thankfully, redeemed from reductive stereotypes after a scene or two. But I didn’t understand the turn towards melodrama at the end of the book, or why, if some kind of crisis was felt to be necessary, it took quite the form it did. Perhaps Simonson felt she should balance her satirical treatment of the shallow English villagers with some equal opportunity mockery (if that’s what it is) of the values that lead to ‘honor’ killings, but I felt that this very troubling episode threw the book off balance. I was interested that Simonson chose Kipling as the author who drew the Major and Mrs Ali together. I haven’t read any Kipling beyond snippets of (jingoistic) verse, but the part he plays here, along with Ahdaf Souief’s allusions to him in her novels (including the title of In the Eye of the Sun) make me think he’s worth taking a closer look at.