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Someone at a Distance (thoughts)

January 7, 2010

Let’s hear it for my first five-star read of the year: Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. It was wonderful, but I’m at a bit of a loss on how to discuss it here. Frankly, I think a plot summary might turn you off the book. It certainly did me!

But let’s back up. How did I manage to get a book before knowing anything about the plot? Simple: it was a Persephone. For those who don’t know, Persephone Books is a small UK publisher dedicated to “neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers.” It has quite the cult following among book bloggers, and I’ve been wanting to read one of the books forever. Then there was the Persephone Secret Santa Swap, which I didn’t take part in (since I’m unemployed and of limited means)…it made me desperate to get my hands on one of those grey covers. But my library doesn’t have any. So instead I turned to inter-library loan, and chose the book that was held by the most libraries according to Worldcat. And that’s how Someone at a Distance came to be waiting for me at the library.

I was truly excited about my first Persephone, but after I read the plot summary, I felt a little disappointed. It sounded…so…well, hackneyed. Then I actually started reading the book, and from the first page I became completely engrossed in the characters’ lives. I cared deeply about them, and I could almost inhabit their world, it was so vividly drawn. I’m still not sure how Whipple managed it, because I can’t point to any one characteristic that made the book so incredible. But it was like a living, breathing thing, and the pages simply flew by at the same time that they made me pause and think. I wanted to give some characters hugs and other characters slaps. I adored this book, and I completely understand why Persephone Books has a cult following!

How shall I convince you to read it? If you love well fleshed-out characters and beautiful prose, you’ll love it. If you love books set in the English countryside, that are about everyday lives and the series of coincidences that can change them, you’ll love it. If you love books that have an underlying sense of wit and humour, you’ll love it. Check out the opening:

Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company. She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.

Old Mrs. North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.

As for me, I’ll be ILLing my next Dorothy Whipple novel soon: They Knew Mr. Knight.

Have you ever read a book that was much better than its plot summary, or back cover blurb? Or are you a Persephone devotee? If so, which other novels should I try to ILL?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2010 8:47 am

    No need to convince me, I picked up They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple just before Christmas, but never got time to read it as someone else reserved it. I hope to pick it up soon again. I have read one of the Persephone books and really enjoyed it. I also managed to pick up two from the charity shops.

  2. January 7, 2010 9:57 am

    Oh, this sounds wonderful! I love the opener; the author conveys so much in just a few words. You can visualize Mrs. North, her home, and her state of mind.

  3. tuulenhaiven permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:02 am

    Thanks for this review – it’s very encouraging. I received this book from my Persephone Secret Santa, and was wildly excited, but nervous too since the subject matters seemed like something I wouldn’t be into so much. Now I’m so glad I have it, and I can’t wait to read it! I’m glad your first experience with Persephone was so good. :)

  4. January 7, 2010 10:05 am

    Oh my word — you absolutely convinced me! Great review!

  5. January 7, 2010 10:08 am

    I have never read a Persephone, either, and really want to! I will have to find a way to get my grubby hands on those grey covers!

    I can’t think of a book I read that was way better than its blurb at the moment. Hmm… I often find blurbs misleading, myself, as though the publisher is trying to hit as many genres as possible!

  6. January 7, 2010 10:10 am

    I do love that opening, Eva! It is so spunky and just a little bit biting – the way a Persephone should be!

    The only Persephone I’ve read thus far is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I’m pretty sure is their most popular book (it’s the only one I could get through my local library). I was initially pretty lukewarm about it, but by the end I was rooting for Miss P and was a converted Persephone fan. I have three Persephones on my shelves that I need to read: The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I think you’d probably like The World That Was Ours (despite my not having read it! ;) ) because it focuses on apartheid in South Africa, which seems like an Eva topic to me! ;)

  7. Pat permalink
    January 7, 2010 10:20 am

    Received three (!) gorgeous Persephones for Christmas…none read yet…I am still in the admiring stage of owning these lovely little books.

  8. January 7, 2010 11:00 am

    I have yet to read a Persephone edition, but there’s no doubt that I would fall in love with these. Every review of every book they’ve re-published is glowing.

    I haven’t read anything by Dorothy Whipple. Would you consider this to fit Women Unbound?

  9. January 7, 2010 11:52 am

    Glad you enjoyed your first Persephone – Whipple definitely a good choice. I’ve been reading some of her short stories today!

  10. January 7, 2010 12:19 pm

    I was reading a Persephone book last night, Kitchen Essays and really enjoying it. I haven’t read this one though and the only other one I’ve read is Cheerful Weather for a Wedding which I did not care for at all.

    I DO love the book covers and the gray books are lovely with their beautiful end papers.

  11. January 7, 2010 12:22 pm

    I’m so glad your first Persephone was a hit! I am a devotee and have really loved the Diaries of Etty Hillesum and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Actually I’ve read six Persephones and have enjoyed each one a lot so I don’t think you can go wrong. Can’t wait to hear which one you’ll read next!

  12. January 7, 2010 12:39 pm

    You convinced me! I’m yet to read a Persephone, though our library system actually has one, but it’s a memoir, not a novel, and I’d rather try a Persephone novel first. This may just be the one! :)


  13. January 7, 2010 12:57 pm

    What a wonderful review, Eva. I am one of Dorothy Whipple’s biggest fans, and I have read nearly all of her novels. I just have to get hold of Because of the Lockwoods and then I’m done. I think Dorothy is one of the finest novelists in the English language; she manages to put into words all the unspoken feelings of the human soul. As you say, her books are life itself. Each of her novels is so wonderful and the characters so involving that I find myself unwilling to finish them because I can’t bear to leave them behind.

    If you can get hold of a copy, you must read Greenbanks, because it’s superb. They Knew Mr Knight is wonderful too, and so is They Were Sisters, but my favourite of the Persephone reprints is The Priory, it’s magnificent. The short stories are terrific too. In short, read everything you can get your hands on, and you’ll still be hungry for more!

  14. January 7, 2010 1:12 pm

    I’ve never heard of Persephone books! Thanks for introducing me . . . I’m definitely going to check it out! =)

  15. January 7, 2010 3:54 pm

    I have this on my TBR pile, and I need to get around to it soon. Glad you enjoyed it! Dorothy Whipple’s books are very well written.

  16. January 7, 2010 3:58 pm

    PS–Persephone is wonderful aren’t they? I’ve read eight of their books; I just finished Fidelity, by Susan Glasepell, which is quite excellent. I was actually lucky enough to receive a Persephone subscription for Christmas!

    If you enjoyed this book, I hihgly recommend you read Whipple’s The Priory–or Miss Bucle’s Book, by DE Stevenson (its howlingly funny). Really, you can’t go wrong with anything Persephone does.

  17. January 7, 2010 3:59 pm

    I didn’t even know what a Persephone was until I read this review. That beginning is great. Onto the wishlist it goes…

  18. January 7, 2010 5:34 pm

    I am most definitely a Persephone devotee. Someone at a Distance was the second Persephone that I read and I was enraptured by the raw evocation of emotion that Whipple lays bare; I am rationing her work out but have also read They Were Sisters, which is likewise brilliant.

    I recommend Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson, Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and, like Steph, am confident that the non-fiction The World that Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein would make perfect reading for you.

  19. January 7, 2010 6:00 pm

    I managed to mooch several Persephones last year but haven’t gotten around to reading them. I’m happy t see your good review because this is one of the ones I have!

  20. musingsfromthesofa permalink
    January 7, 2010 6:45 pm

    Dorothy Whipple is marvellous. I throw in a vote for They Were Sisters, which is my favourite of hers that I have read. As for other Persephone books, The Homemaker is great; Miss Pettigrew is one of my standby comfort reads; Little Boy Lost is heartbreaking. As someone said, you really can’t go wrong with Persephone!

  21. January 7, 2010 8:58 pm

    I’m no help in the recommendation department as I’ve yet to read a Persephone book either…but I am intrigued by the strong following that they have. This sure sounds like a good read!

  22. January 7, 2010 9:30 pm

    I had of course heard all about persephone but didn’t know what it was! Thanks for clarifying. “neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers” is quite a niche market! I’m glad it’s so satisfying! Some day I’ll get time to try these too!

  23. January 8, 2010 1:45 am

    I love the look of Persephone Books. I don’t think I’ve read one –lack of opportunity — , but I fully understand why they have a cult following. Looks like another for my wishlist. Thanks, Eva…I think.

  24. January 8, 2010 3:05 am

    That’s great opening for sure! I’m intrigued just by the two paragraphs!

  25. January 8, 2010 5:13 am

    Welcome to the world of Persephone! I love Dorothy Whipple. Someone at a Distance was on my list of favorites in 2009, and I just reviewed one of her short stories this week, too. Can’t decide whether to read They Were Sisters, The Priory, or her short stories next.

    The Home-Maker and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day are two more Persephone books I’ve loved.

  26. January 8, 2010 6:18 am

    I hadn’t even heard of Persephone until the past few months. I’ve been drooling over the website, but the books are WAY too high for me to even consider. Besides, who could have just one??

    Will have to see what I can find through the library system.

  27. January 8, 2010 8:19 am

    The lines you chose are just wonderful and I am putting this book on my list. I am also gonna check on other Persephone books.. I can’t recollect any title as of now but It has happened so many times that I decided to read a book and the blurb put me off and at some other point I did read it and found that I had been misled by the back cover :)

  28. January 8, 2010 6:06 pm

    As lovely as Persephone books are, I can’t afford to buy them either but I’ve read many through the library. Of the fiction, my personal favourites are: The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby, To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski and Mariana by Monica Dickens. And of course the Whipples! Virago apparently considered Whipple too lowbrow to reprint so I’m very glad Persephone are republishing her. Someone at a Distance is the only one I haven’t read – I’m kind of saving it because then there will be no more…

    I also recommend A Woman’s Place, 1910-75 by Ruth Adams. That is one Persephone I do own and it’s wonderful social history.

  29. January 9, 2010 3:54 pm

    Beautiful prose, well rounded characters, and the English countryside…all my favorite things!

    I”ll certainly be looking for the Persephone books. This one sounds a complete dream.

  30. Ceri Kay permalink
    January 14, 2010 3:56 pm

    I borrowed Miss Pettigrew lives for a day from my local library it was excellent, much better than the film!

  31. January 15, 2010 10:30 am

    So glad you enjoyed your first Whipple! It is hard to put a finger on what makes her books so special.

  32. Maeve permalink
    July 20, 2010 7:39 am

    On Persephone: Humour is so personal – I didn’t care for ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’ either or for the novel by Christine Longford (can’t remember the title). But I find the Americans and Canadians fresh as the day they were written. My favourite is Ethel Wilson’s ‘Hetty Dorval’, a wonderful girl with great parents, learning strange lessons about the adult world.


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