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Someone at a Distance

by Dorothy Whipple
Persephone book no:

2 3 4

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9780953478026

'This Fifties novel about a quietly catastrophic love triangle is beautiful and moving,' was the headline in The Times under which the following review of Someone at a Distance, by Rachel Joyce, recently appeared:

'Published in 1953 and set in England’s rural commuter belt, Someone at a Distance is a love triangle with two unlikely protagonists. Who is responsible for changing the course of our lives, the novel asks? Is it ourselves, those closest to us, or can our lives be shaped by people we don’t even know?

'Ellen North is a good woman. She loves her husband, Avery, a London publisher, and her home, her garden and her children. She is kind and considerate. She prefers staying in to going out, and if she’s guilty of anything, it’s an almost naive faith in the simplicity of life. The only blot on the landscape is Avery’s mother, Mrs North, a woman who likes to complain about how neglected she is. So when Mrs North takes on a young Frenchwoman as a live-in companion, everything seems perfect.

'But beautiful Louise Lanier is trouble. Jilted by her aristocratic lover because she’s a provincial shopkeeper’s daughter (ie not the sort you marry), Louise has fled to England to lick her wounds. Louise is one of literature’s worse narcissists. She is Emma Bovary without the nice bits. When Mrs North dies and makes Louise a beneficiary of her will, Ellen does the “right” thing and invites Louise to stay. Within no time Louise has set her sights on Avery. She doesn’t even want Avery. She just wants to feel desired. She just wants what another woman already has...

'Someone at a Distance is a beautiful and moving story, not just about love, but the lies we tell to protect love. Whipple writes her characters with the kind of understanding that comes from a keen observer of the ordinary. Her style is clear-eyed and precise, superbly elegant and subtle, witty but never showy. Her characters live and breathe and leave little footprints wherever they go; even the minor ones. And it’s her attention to the small things — sentences that are only half-finished, furtive glances, hands that brush one another in passing, the smell of nicotiana on a hot summer night, that make the storytelling so powerful. We see the inevitability of the drama, long before the characters in the middle of it.

'Described by JB Priestley as “the Jane Austen of the 20th century”, Whipple was the bestselling author of nine novels, many short stories and two volumes of memoirs. Her popularity waned when her understated storytelling was replaced by the much louder and pithy voices of the 1960s. (Famously her editor informed her that what the publishing world wanted was more passion, more action.) But for the modern reader, the novel poses a complex question. Who is the true instigator of this love triangle? Is it really that minx, Louise? Is it the man Louise once adored, who rejected her and set her on a path of destruction? Or is there something more progressive at play?...

'In Dorothy Whipple’s own way — quietly probing, loving and truthful — she was just as disruptive as the writers of the 1960s who replaced her.'

Also available as a Persephone Classic, a Persephone e-book and a Persephone Audiobook read by Susan Wooldridge.


The 1950s linen furnishing fabric by Ashley Havinden is based on drawings done in the 1930s when Ellen furnished her house; it combines a menacing feel with a hint of the domestic.

Picture Caption

Alice Ashley on a Garden Seat by Donald Chisholm Towner, 1937 © Burgh House and Hampstead Museum

Read What Readers Say

Marian Keyes on Twitter

‘Someone at a Distance’ took me hostage for 3 days!… Such forensic analysis of human beings! So little seemed dated and I cannot TELL you how much I loved it.

JacquiWine's Journal (blog)

A compelling novel about the fragile nature of love and the lives we build for ourselves... One to sink into when you’re in the mood for an absorbing page-turner.

The Spectator

A very good novel indeed about the fragility and also the tenacity of love.

John Sandoe Books

We have all delighted in this unjustly forgotten novel; it is well written and compelling.

Categories: Adultery Family Love Story Sex Woman and Home

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