Avery and Ellen North have an ideal marriage and a model family. Son Hugh is in military service; daughter Anne attends boarding school and spends her holidays mostly obsessing over her mare, Roma. Avery is a successful partner in a London publishing firm, and Ellen gardens, cares for family needs, and maintains their home in the country. Their peaceful life is forever changed when Avery’s elderly mother employs Louise, a young French woman, for conversation and light domestic duties.
Louise comes from a small provincial town. Now in her late 20s, she has no real marriage prospects and is recovering from an illicit romance with Paul, a wealthy young man recently married to someone more appropriate for his station. At first she appears a suitable companion for old Mrs. North, but eventually she begins to shirk her domestic duties, encroach on family life, and generally walk around behaving as if she’s better than everyone else. Gradually it becomes clear she will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Having failed to snare Paul, she sets her sights on Avery. It’s obvious from the word “go” that she will succeed, but Dorothy Whipple takes her time. Little by little, Louise endears herself to the family, and Whipple allows the reader glimpses of Louise’s thoughts and feelings so we know, long before anyone else, just how manipulative and conniving she is.
I almost got bored with all the build-up. But then came the most painful pages of the novel, when Ellen discovers what’s going on between Avery and Louise. And a bit later, when a devastated Ellen comforts Anne:
‘Don’t let’s talk about it Mummy,’ she said.
‘No, darling,’ said Ellen.
With the other hand, she began to stroke Anne’s hair. Backwards and forwards went her gentle hand and by and by Anne’s head drooped against her knee and her mother saw she was asleep.
The day had been long and bitter, there was trouble behind and before, but for this brief space in the dining-room, there was nothing but peace and love. (p. 238)
At that point, I was fully invested in Ellen’s welfare, and pulling for her every step of the way. Whipple continued giving me glimpses of Avery and Louise, and Louise’s family in France, but I was always eager to return to Ellen’s story. At first she withdrew into herself, and didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened. But as the shock wore off and she summoned the courage to venture forth, Ellen was surprised to find others who had been through a similar experience. Day by day, she grew stronger and more independent. And along the way, so did Anne.
There’s much more complexity to this story; I don’t want to spoil it for you. The Norths and Louise are surrounded by a rich set of characters, all brilliantly portrayed, even down to the family cat. There are interesting subplots, like the story of Paul and his wife. And the ending is satisfying, if inconclusive. All I can say is, you have to read Someone at a Distance to appreciate it.