Monday, June 06, 2011

Dorothy Whipple

Browsing Three Lives & Company bookstore on a recent trip to New York, I was seduced yet again by an elegant book from Persephone Press, Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance (1953). It's a straightforward tale of the destruction of a seemingly stable marriage by the introduction of a French adventuress who, in her amorality and biting disdain is nearly as memorable as Thackeray's Becky Sharp. She loves Madame Bovary, for all the wrong reasons. It's the sort of novel that Persephone does so well: minor and forgotten, yet well worth reading if you're into quietly domestic twentieth-century British fiction.

The book is primarily carried by Whipple's keen insight into the compromises and self-deceptions of marriage, as well as the destructiveness of unacknowledged selfishness, but it's also full of well-drawn minor characters and moments of shining wit. The dry tone of the following made me smile:
The art of letter-writing, as taught at the Pension Ste Colombe, had not included an example of a letter one could write to one's lover's wife to ask her to send the clothes he had left behind when he deserted her, and Louise spent a considerable time in wondering how to word it. It was, she admitted to herself, a difficult sort of letter.
And then there's this peek inside the cloudy head of the weak husband himself:
"I think we'll all have a glass of sherry," he said.

He almost worked on that axiom. When in doubt, have a glass of sherry. It tided him over. It put things off, and after a glass of sherry, problems mostly solved themselves.
That's nearly enough to indict him on its own: anyone who would fall back on sherry as a problem solver is not to be trusted. Sherry, after all, is at best a pointed stick compared to the Swiss army knife that is gin.

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