I think the editors did a neat job of summing up the plot in their back-cover blurb:
Someone at a Distance has a deceptively simple plot about a deceived wife and a foolish husband. Avery North has been contentedly married to Ellen for twenty years, they have two children and live in the rural commuter belt outside London; when his mother advertises for a companion, the French girl who arrives sets her sights on Avery and callously threatens the happy marriage. Throughout the book Ellen and Avery are so realistically described that it is almost painful to read: this is a deeply involving and perceptive novel by the literary heir to Mrs Gaskell.
Actually, there's a slight inaccuracy there: Mrs. North doesn't advertise but answers an advertisement, in the personal column of The Times: "Young Frenchwoman desires to spend July, August in English home. French conversation. Light domestic duties."
We are introduced to the Frenchwoman, Louise Lannier, in the next chapter, as she announces her new post to her parents. We learn something about her life in her small provincial town, and why she wants to leave it behind for England. As the story develops, it moves back and forth between France and England, between Louise and Mrs. North, Ellen and Avery and their children. Eventually Louise comes to stay with Ellen and Avery, and it's then that the trouble begins.
I liked Ellen very much from the start, so my sympathies were with her throughout the story. She is a good person, a loving wife and mother, busy in the home and expressing her love in domestic cares. Like many middle-class women after the Second World War, she doesn't have help in the home, so she's always rushing around, trying to do too much, but happy in it. I also liked Anne, their daughter, who lives for school holidays and her horse Roma. I felt much sympathy for Monsieur and Madame Lannier, who can never do anything right for their difficult daughter but love her all the same. And there is a little black and white cat, who first appears galloping to meet Avery and Ellen as they drive up to their home. Cats who gallop around cars often come to a bad end, and as with the rabbits in Monica Dickens' The Fancy, I was always subconsciously waiting for something awful to happen to little Moppet. (Spoiler alert: nothing does.) The headmistress at Anne's school has a cat who lolls around in her study, so I think that Dorothy Whipple may have been a cat person.
More serious spoilers follow:
My only quibble with this book is its ending - specifically, the last two pages. Up til then, I thought it a perfect ending. Ellen has survived Avery leaving her for Louise, and their eventual divorce. She has found a new home, with room for Anne and her son Hugh - not to mention Moppet and Roma. She has friends, and satisfying work. She has regained her balance and her strength. The Avery turns up unexpectedly, with Louise, whom he married after the divorce though he doesn't love or even like her. Ellen realizes that he is miserable with Louise, that he will leave her and return to Ellen, when their children are grown and gone - and she will wait for him. I was sorry to read that "The painfully achieved repairs to her life were all broken down . . . Now she must start again and it all seemed chaotic and impossible." I wanted her choose that repaired, new life. "Creeping into her heart was the realisation that, although she could not be with him, Avery was restored to her." She chooses that old love instead, and I found that an unsatisfactory ending - but maybe a realistic one.
Now that I've met Dorothy Whipple, I don't want to wait for copies of her books to turn up (particularly when Persephones are so rare in Houston bookstores new or used). I have already ordered The Priory and They Were Sisters (which I've been anxious to read). It was only the shipping costs - and a faint protest from my TBR conscience - that kept me from adding High Wages and Greenbanks to the order.