Someone at a Distance
Persephone Classics (1999, 2008) – first published in 1953
For no fault of hers that she could think of, no failure of love on her part, he would end their life together and break up their home.
Using simple prose in a conventional post-war era, this superb story about the destruction of a marriage is both devastating and hopeful. It’s definitely unforgettable.
Ellen and Avery North have been happily married for twenty years and live in a lovely home in the English countryside. He works in the publishing business and she is a homemaker that loves to garden, cook, and take care of her family. Their two children Hugh and Anne are well-adjusted and cheerfully on their way to adulthood.
Louise Lanier is a young French woman still reeling after her secret lover Paul threw her over to marry what he considered a more suitable girl. Although usually a sympathetic plight, it is immediately apparent that Louise is completely self-absorbed, bent on revenge, and treats her doting parents like dirt. She advertises her services as a companion to an English paper which is answered by Avery’s mother. The cranky old lady takes an unexpected liking to Louise and leaves her a thousand pounds in her will. When she comes back to collect the inheritance, Louise sets her superficial charms at Avery with disastrous results.
One of the scariest things about this story is that it happened in a strong, solid marriage. The entire structure of a happy and functional home was razed to the ground. Character reactions were what made this book superior to other stories about infidelity which are often melodramatic and one-dimensional. Ellen working through the shock and anguish of betrayal while trying to hold her daughter together was harrowing to read. This is every married woman’s worst nightmare.
Avery reacted predictably. Knowing he was in the wrong, he chose to abandon his family because “no way was he going to eat humble pie for the rest of his life”. He lived to regret that foolish pride in some pretty nasty ways. The children’s outlook on life was damaged and their anger, intense. Seeing everything she built crumble before her eyes, Ellen finally turns to a trusted friend for advice.
“You must go forward,” said Mrs. Brockington. “You must go on with love and courage, Ellen, and trust to God to carry you forward through your life.”
Although she is no friend of mine, I know a real-life Louise, and she is every bit as bitter and destructive as Whipple’s character. It made this book a bizarre read in some parts. She never threatened my marriage but annihilated a couple of others. One of her victims moved halfway around the world to get away from her. The only good thing is that it gave my daughters a heads-up for their own future relationships. These people are real and out there.
As dark as this tale seems, hope, beauty, and healing run all the way through. But never rest on your marital laurels. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.