For me, one of the chief differences between what I call middlebrow fiction and literary fiction has to do with the degree to which the writing announces itself as writing. It’s impossible to fly through a Woolf novel for the plot: not only are her plots thin, almost event-less in the ordinary, outward sense, but her writing demands your attention. That’s fact—the poetry of Woolf’s prose—has sustained my interest in reading, studying, and writing about Woolf for two decades.
But I also like to read another kind of book, a book like Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, where the writing is clear and strong and full of careful and apt description but all of that is in the service of telling a story, of exploring how these fictional characters will react to the situations she has imagined for them.
As I said yesterday, most of Someone at a Distance is written with an Orwellian clarity: prose like a windowpane. There are no missteps, no groaners. And there are a few moments of really beautiful prose. For me, these two paragraphs on how a wife comes to rely on a happy marriage were among the most poignant in the book: beautiful, funny, and smart. They come half way through, just before that happy marriage must endure a brutal test, and, knowing what is coming (the hints are strong), the description has all the more power:
A happily married woman acquires the habit of referring everything to, discussing everything with, her husband. Even the smallest things. Like bad coal, for instance. To be able to say, sitting across the hearth from him in the evening: ‘Isn’t this coal bad?’ and to hear him say, looking up from his book at the fire: ‘Awful. Sheer slate,’ is to have something comfortable made out of even bad coal.
A loved husband is the companion of companions, the supreme sharer, and a happy wife often sounds trivial when she is really sampling and enjoying their mutual and unique confidence. But in doing it, she largely loses her power of independent decision and action. She either brings her husband round to her way of thinking or goes over to his, and mostly she doesn’t know or care which it is. (210-11)
I love the mid-century, English specificity of bad coal. I don’t know what “sheer slate” means exactly—though we can easily guess the discomfort of a fire that’s not warming us as it should—but it’s funny how right it sounds, even 60 years later: that’s just what one is supposed to say. And Whipple is right to notice how a shared complaint, a regular one against some domestic inconvenience, can reconfirm domesticity in a lovely way. Also wonderful—and characteristic—is the gentle feminist turn in the second paragraph. I feel my own trivialities to be understood and forgiven in that description of how such details are really a “sampling and enjoying” of intimacy. And yet, as Whipple warns, there is a danger—a very specific one—to too much of this. Spending too much time luxuriating in the “us” of a marriage, one risks losing oneself.
Yet, moments later, when Ellen must make a decision without consulting her husband, she “felt she was breaking one of the countless Lillputian bonds that bound her up with Avery.”
One of the challenges of marriage is finding the right balance between coupledom and independence. Clarissa Dalloway manages it by marrying a man who leaves her to be independent; Ellen North chooses to lose herself in a man and, when he shows himself less worthy, she must begin to forge a new life by untangling herself from the webs of the old. What’s lovely in Whipple’s writing here is that she takes the time to describe what it is that Ellen, who seems so plump, ordinary, and sweet, has at stake—to lose and to gain.