Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple


“A grain or two of sand can start a downward trickle on the sand-hills which eventually alters the shape of the immediate scene”


Ellen North is a loving mother and wife. She runs her home, lavishes her two children with love, is blissfully happy in her post-war English country home. It is said that her garden provides the best insight into her mood and her home is always filled with fresh cut flowers. Her husband Avery is a publisher, her daughter Anne is away at school and is crazy about her horse Roma. Hugh the oldest child serves in the Army. All things are as they should be.

We first meet the family through Avery’s mother, old Mrs. North, whose husband has died. She decides to place an ad for a companion which is answered by a young French woman, Mademoiselle Louise Lanier. Of course Louise is beautiful and old Mrs. North is smitten by her. For others, Louise leaves a decidedly bad taste. She is rude, demanding, and parades around like some sort of princess when really she is from a provincial French town and is the daughter or a bookseller. This standing in her town has ensured that she was dumped by her love interest for a woman of more appropriate standing. This fuels Louise through the book. We are never really sure what she wants, nothing seems to satisfy her-money, affection, attention, things, the pain she causes others.


“There are times in our lives when the slightest move is dangerous”


At old Mrs. North’s death Louise is given 1000 pounds and must stay in England to secure her inheritance. During this spell Louise intentionally attracts Avery’s attention. Ellen is unaware, she has never had a reason to not trust Avery. Though she does not particularly like Louise she makes allowances and convinces herself be cordial and hopes for a friendship. Initially Avery is not interested, then is becomes angry, then he he falls for Louise’s flirtations and off we go with scandal and the beginnings of a new predicament for both Ellen and Louise.

Flipping through the Persephone catalog this seemed like a pretty normal story of fairly normal interest. In fact, it wasn’t one of my first choices but since it was published as a classic it was easy to get a hold of here in the US. It of course sat on my shelf for a while. I’d heard plenty about Dorothy Whipple since coming to know Persephone and she is recommended by many. I quite enjoyed Someone At A Distance. The characters are well developed and the ordinary plot is extraordinarily written. While their reasons are not always rational, Whipple makes us equally aware of each character’s perspective. Ellen is able to maintain her relationship with her children and work out a new life for herself and generally seemed to be moving on, though she remained hopeful that Avery would come to his senses and do the right thing. She refused to be demeaned and she remained composed for her children. But I wasn’t at all expecting the ending, I think I’m mad about it!

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4 responses to “Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

  • Mrs. B

    I understand what you’re saying about the ending. I wasn’t happy about it either and maybe that’s why it’s not my favourite Dorothy Whipple. I prefer They Were Sisters and some of her other novels. That said though she is a wonderful writer and I still loved this book anyway. I guess we can’t really understand why people do the things they do sometimes and maybe that’s the message Whipple was trying to convey. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness sometimes and this character chose to forgive.

  • Aarti

    Wow, this sounds like an odd story. Not sure if I would like it, really, but I still want to read Whipple, generally. And own a Persephone book! Such a pretty cover.

  • Claire (Paperback_Reader)

    I adored Someone at a Distance and the raw evocation of adultery; sorry it made you hopping mad!

    I also love this cover :).

  • Book Psmith

    I waited to read your post on this until I had finished the book…but I am so with you on the ending…it is a big part of why I can’t stop thinking about the book.

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