The continuing drip-feed of stories about governments and friendly-seeming internet giants sifting through our data has left some citizens feeling outraged and a bit duped. I have no doubt that they would sympathise with poor deceived Ellen North in Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant 1950s novel Someone at a Distance.
‘Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife’, who works herself to the bone to make a cheerful home for her children and indolent, self-satisfied husband, Avery. When Avery’s mother employs a young French companion — the vain and poisonous Louise Lanier — we sense that Ellen may not be a happy housewife for long.
Louise wants to get away from her boring provincial town, and so advertises her services for French conversation and ‘light domestic duties’. Once ensconced with the Norths, however, she doesn’t lift a finger to help and wastes no time in getting the measure of her hosts. She swiftly gets her hands on the family jewels and a substantial amount of money, and it’s not hard to guess what, or who, she will endeavour to get next.
When Avery and Ellen are visiting their daughter at boarding school, Louise delights in having all day to poke around their home. Like Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, ‘The house was defenceless. The lives, the very beings of the Norths were exposed to the stranger’s inspection.’ When they return, Louise ‘was as full of information as a cat of stolen cream and showed as little trace of it’.
Ellen realises Louise is up to no good, and yet simply cannot get rid of her. When she asks her outright to leave, Louise dodges and then digs her claws in deeper. Having discovered the house’s weakness, she pounces, swiftly destroying it with her expert seduction of Avery. ‘I was blind,’ Ellen says to her husband, when she catches him at it with Louise. ‘Because I trusted you. I would have gone on trusting you till the end, if I hadn’t seen.’ Many internet users might say the same.
Yet in this resoundingly feminist novel, it is the betrayal of a woman by another woman to which Whipple gives particular emphasis. Louise is depicted as an aberration — inexcusably different to the other female characters, who go out of their way to support Ellen. After Avery and Louise go off together, Ellen turns to women friends and, with their help, gets a job and gains financial independence. She fashions a new life, and ends up perhaps even better off, we are left thinking, than she was while Avery was around. With the help of the sisterhood, we can gain strength, says Whipple. Betray your allies and you are cast out.
As for Louise, she gets material wealth, but nothing else. Her parents disown her, Avery soon hates her — and she him — and she hasn’t any friends. ‘What a bitch’ is all anyone has to say about her. The NSA might find this instructive.