How many boxes can one book tick? 1953 in my personal 20th century challenge – tick A long-overdue second helping from Persephone – tick. Then I discovered that Whipple was a Lancastrian lass – she lived in Blackburn no less. (I went to grammar school there.) Ever so interesting and that’s before I even started to read.
Then it got really, really interesting ….. because my expectations of a genteel domestic drama, based on the bepearled elegance on the front-cover, were soon shattered. I’ll wager that Someone from a Distance contains the most obnoxious if not the most downright evil female protagonist in the Persephone canon in the form of homewrecker, Louise Lanier. In fact, in places I found myself thinking of James M Cain’s Phyllis Nirdinger, generally recognised as a femme fatale extraordinaire, a selfish she-devil incarnate. Not that James M Cain fans should rush to read Whipple or vice versa. Cain’s noir has nothing in common with Whipple’s domestic drama. The associations in my head are based purely on my impressions of the female protagonists.
How many insults can I hurl at Louise? Self-obsessed, ungrateful, abusive of her doting parents, opportunistic, ruthless. Damaged by a previous relationship and the credence you give to the cause and effect of that on her behaviour will determine your own reaction to her. It didn’t wash with me at all. Despite my aversion to her, I have to say she doesn’t half make the pages turn.
Let’s just say she couldn’t destroy the North family without their unwitting connivance. Be it in the naivety of the wife, Ellen, and the blind stupidity of the husband, Avery. Before Louise comes into their life, they were a rather dull, if happy, family. The first third of the book describes their peaceful life in suburbia, the second third Louise’s inveigling of her way into the hearth, and the final third the result of her and Avery North’s husband’s perfidy.
Nothing too exceptional plotwise then. Indeed no, but the psychological insights are refreshingly direct.
Louise on Ellen and Avery:
But she thought Ellen managed her husband badly. Ellen was unselfish, and so in consequence, he was not. Ellen took responsibility for everything in the house and evidently for the children too; so he did not. He took Ellen for granted and that was too, Louise considered, Ellen’s own fault. She was altogether too open and simple. A woman needed art and subtlety and Ellen had neither.
Compare that with the views of the omniscient narrator.
So, for a time, Ellen went blindly and happily on. There was, until now, a sort of naivety about Ellen. If she was quite as gentle as a dove, she certainly wasn’t as wise as a serpent. She had no experience of serpents. She had never really come across one before.
I love those last two lines. They tell you everything you need to know about Louise Lanier and the uncozy factors in this drama. Obviously Louise doesn’t care that much for Avery, yet she sets her cap at him regardless. The consequences are then portrayed with situational and emotional honesty. No one escapes. Not even Louise. I’ll not betray how she gets her well-deserved comeuppance. I’ll just say it comes from an unexpected quarter and may turn out to be one of the most satisfying fictional moments of 2012.