If I knew how, I would subtitle this post “Persephone Power.” Of course I knew Dorothy Whipple’s name because some of you read her for Persephone Reading Weekend back in February. But last week, when I was in Southern California promoting LVG, a woman at a luncheon told me how much she loved Whipple. Then when I walked into the charming Laguna Beach Books for a reading (I need you to imagine the sun setting over the Pacific here, to add local color to the scene), there was Someone at a Distance next to the cash register to welcome me. Has to be a good sign when you’re reading in a store that carries Persephones, right?
But THEN at a Memorial Day luncheon I sat next to a very charming and funny woman who, as it turned out, designed the cover! (Along with many other covers I have admired, including the beautiful cover of Wait for Me!) So the stars or the fates were all pushing me toward Dorothy Whipple and Someone at a Distance and I was not disappointed.
It’s a rather stealthy novel, actually. Ellen and Avery North lead a charmed life in a big comfortable house in the country. Avery, bluff and handsome, owns half of a publishing house and commutes to London while Ellen joyfully keeps the house running with help from a pair of picturesque daily women. Hugh, eighteen, is in the Army; Anne, fifteen, is at boarding school and chiefly lives for her horse Roma. The only flaw in the picture is Avery’s selfish and bored mother, who lives nearby and meddles.
Oh, well. There’s an apple and a snake in every Eden, apparently. (We wouldn’t have novels otherwise.) Whipple spent so much time building the picture of family comfort, loyalty and happiness that I was startled by her even-handedness. With the same thoroughness she dismantled her own creation — thereby putting a comfortable distance between herself and Angela Thirkell. Whipple’s omniscient narrator spends as much time in the consciousness of the French hussy Louise as she does in the baffled masculine inner world of Avery or the sweet, warm, cluelessness of Ellen. Result: I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of the story, and I keep turning it over in my head. Should Ellen have been more wary? Were the children spoiled? Can this marriage be saved? Why do we so enjoy reading about nasties like Louise and Mrs. North — to prove that we aren’t like them?
Or is the point merely that, as an Episcopal priest told a friend of mine at pre-wedding counseling, “Men can be beasts, you know.” (True story.)
Clearly I need to read more Dorothy Whipple to find out what she really thinks.