The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Last summer I read my first Dorothy Whipple, Someone at Distance (1953), a thoroughly compelling novel on the systematic destruction of a marriage – a timeless theme rendered with real insight and attention to detail. This year I’m returning to Whipple with one of her earlier novels, The Priory (1939), in a post for Jessie’s Perspehone event (running from 31st May to 9th June).

The Priory is something of an Upstairs-Downstairs story, revolving around the residents of Saunby, a crumbling old estate in the middle of England in the years leading up to the Second World War. The estate is home to the Marwood family: Major Marwood, a widower; his daughters, Christine (aged twenty) and Penelope (nineteen); and the Major’s unmarried sister, the somewhat eccentric Victoria. Also present in the house are various servants, most notably the ineffectual cook, Mrs Nall, the mismatched maids, Bertha and Bessy, and Major Marwood’s trusty right-hand man, Thompson.

Unfortunately for the family, Major Marwood has no head for finances with the estate’s outgoings far outweighing any incomings. Moreover, the buildings at The Priory are deteriorating and in need of relatively urgent repair. In spite of the estate’s dire financial situation, Major Marwood’s priorities remain focused in one direction only – namely, his beloved cricket during the forthcoming summer season. Every August the Major hosts a lavish cricketing fortnight, providing full board and lodgings for visiting teams and refreshments for all spectators. Assisting the Major in this capacity is Thompson, an ex-professional cricketer who proves vital support to The Priory team during the event.

Meanwhile, Christine and Penelope continue to amuse themselves up in the nursery where they have lived since they were children, taking their meals separately from the rest of the family. The girls’ aunt, Victoria, is another law unto herself, content to spend her days painting pictures (which she does rather badly), eschewing any responsibility for the house in favour of artistic pursuits.

Conscious of the need for change in the future, the Major decides to remarry, prompting a proposal to his lady friend, Anthea Sumpton – not a catch exactly, but a suitable woman to take charge of the girls, both of whom should be thinking of marriage themselves sooner rather than later.

It didn’t matter, though, whether she [Anthea] had money or not; he would marry her with or without. She was so suitable. In a second marriage you thought of suitability not of romance. (p. 20)

The girls, for their part, are horrified by their father’s decision to remarry, fearing any changes their new stepmother may introduce in the house.

The first half of this thoroughly enjoyable novel focuses on Anthea’s marriage to the Major, and the gradual realisation on her part that her new husband is anything but loving and romantic – in truth, the Major is rather perfunctory and set in his old ways. Nevertheless, Anthea is made of strong stuff, stronger than might appear at first sight. On discovering what she has let herself in for at Saunby, the new Mrs Marwood is determined to get the house into some sort of order, sacking the hopeless Mrs Nall and enlisting Bessy’s help to clear the rooms of clutter. Then, much to the Major’s horror, Anthea discovers she is pregnant, a development that will lead to even more household expense, especially if the child is a boy. (In the Major’s world, boys are destined to receive a proper education at a reputable school, while girls must make do with a governess at home.)

In the second half of the novel the focus shifts, falling primarily on Christine and her marriage to the promising cricketer, Nicholas Ashwell, whom she meets during the annual cricketing fortnight at Saunby. While the Ashwells are very wealthy and want for very little in the way of material possessions, Nicholas has always felt dependent on his father, unable to make a living of his own on account of Sir James’s reputation and standing in the community.

Christine and Nicholas are blissfully happy at first, but their marriage soon begins to sour, tainted by Nicholas’s attachment to ‘the crowd’, a group of fast-living friends who spend their time drinking and playing poker. In truth, Christine misses her old life at Saunby, while Nicholas wants to continue pretty much as before – in essence, neither of them is finding married life very easy to adjust to.

Penelope, for her part, is also rather unhappy, bereft at the loss of her sister from Saunby. Primarily as a means of escape from Anthea and the changes in the house, Penelope marries Paul Kenworthy, a kindly, handsome man who truly adores her. Luckily for Penelope, Paul has enough money to keep her in a comfortable manner, something she soon becomes accustomed to.

Alongside the ‘upstairs’ developments affecting the Marwoods, there is no shortage of drama below stairs at Saunby. Perhaps most notably, Thompson finds himself caught up in an impossible love triangle with the manipulative Betha and the lovely Bessy, a situation that plays out in a very affecting fashion, much to the reader’s distress.

The Priory is a very engaging novel, one that explores the complexities of family relationships and the choices we make when faced with significant change. For readers who enjoy a decent amount of plot, there are lots of interesting developments throughout the narrative as these families adjust and reshape themselves over time. Whipple introduces various elements along the way, including compromising indiscretions, unwanted pregnancies, manipulative actions and painful separations. The narrative strands are thought-provoking and absorbing – I’ve barely scratched the surface of them here.

The lack of options for women is a major theme throughout, particularly when marriage proves to be elusive – or worse, a failure. At one point towards the end of the story, Christine reflects on the nub of the issue, vowing that something must change in time for the next generation – for girls like her daughter, Angela.

What did women in her position do? What did they do? If there was only marriage for girls brought up in the way she and Penelope had been brought up and marriage failed, what then?

It was a question parents, in her world, did not ask themselves.

‘All the money goes on the sons,’ thought Christine. ‘They just trust to luck about the daughters, hoping they’ll be pretty enough to make a good marriage. If they’re not, they just have to exist like Rosamund Hunter and the rest, and end up like Aunt Victoria.’ (pp. 424-425)

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the depth of characterisation Whipple brings to the story, particularly in her portrayal of the main female characters, Anthea, Christine and Penelope. Individuals who at first seem rather neglected and worthy of our sympathies turn out to have considerable failings, revealing themselves to be selfish or downright obstinate. Conversely, those who appear to be unfeeling and domineering are actually very caring at heart, particularly in times of desperate need. The way that characters change and develop throughout the narrative is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.

As the novel draws to a close, the threat of WW2 looms on the horizon. While the ultimate ending might feel too neat and tidy for some readers’ tastes, I was happy to go with it. This is good old-fashioned storytelling at its most enjoyable, particularly for fans of British fiction between the wars.

29 thoughts on “The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

  1. madamebibilophile

    Like you, I really enjoyed Someone at a Distance and I’m keen to read more Whipple. This does sound a good read – an awful lot going on for one novel! The interwar setting is very appealing too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, loads going on! More so than in ‘Distance’ with the switch in focus, but it does just about hang together as a whole. I like the fact that some of Whipple’s characters are not quite what they might seem at first sight. We all have our hidden sides, both positive and negative, so the author’s decision to capture people in this way rings true to me.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary. This book sounds very good. The imperative that girls marry is so central to so much British and American literature covering multiple periods. Obviously the historical facts are preserved in literature. In this way, the world has changed for the better.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, lifestyle choices for women have definitely opened up significantly since the 1930s. In many ways, this is quite a ‘traditional’ novel, good old-fashioned storytelling and none the worse for it.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    The book sounds very interesting, and by an author I’ve never read . . . and with cricket connection! I really ought to give this a try: off to the library catalogue, I guess.

    That looks like a really interesting/attractive copy you have. Which edition is it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, the Major’s fascination with the sport is all encompassing. Just don’t expect much in the way of actual cricket being played here. It’s very much a novel about the changing nature of families and the various relationships at play rather than any sporting action. (As an aside, have you read L. P. Hartley’s excellent novel The Go-Between? There’s a wonderful cricket match at the centre of that novel, quite a pivotal scene if I recall correctly. If not, I would urge you to consider reading it ahead of any Whipple!)

      My edition is a Persephone, complete with trademark endpapers and grey cover. They have a beautiful shop in the centre of London, just the place to pick up a stylish present or two. I must drop back for another look…

      Reply
  4. Naomi

    I read my first Dorothy Whipple just a few months ago and loved it. (They Were Sisters) There will definitely be more in my future!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, fantastic. That’s on my wishlist for sure. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. There’s a film of that novel, too. It crops up on the Talking Pictures channel every now and again, but I’m trying to avoid watching it until I’ve read the book!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Yes, that definitely isn’t in the plan as far as the Major is concerned. Far too much of a distraction, not to mention the expense. It’s funny how outmoded some of these attitudes might seem these days, and yet I’m sure there are still many instances of this kind of scenario playing out today…

      Reply
  5. Sandra

    I have never heard a bad word about Whipple’s books. It’s astonishing to think that they had practicially sunk without trace. Thank goodness Persephone rescued them!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It’s lovely to see them back in print with Persephone. Whipple seems to be a bit of a flagship author for them, almost a standard bearer for the whole brand.

      Reply
  6. Izzy

    This one had been on my radar ever since I discovered Persephone books but as I was rather underwhelmed by The Village, by Marghanita Laski, I’m still wondering whether the books Persephone choose to publish are really for me…Sorry if I come across as a snob :-).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, not all! That’s really interesting to hear. I’ve yet to try any Marghanita Laski, so it’s difficult for me to comment on her work with any kind insight. The one I’ve heard the most about is Little Boy Lost, in which a man goes to France to look for his son after the Second World War. The Village rings a bell, but I’m struggling to recall why at the moment – I guess I must have seen a review of it at some stage, probably by another blogger or reader on here!

      Have you read Miss Pettigrew Lives for as Day? That’s probably my favourite of the Perspehones I’ve read so far. It’s a charming story, one for a duvet day if you’re feeling a bit low.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Lovely review. The Priory was my first ever Dorothy Whipple, and that was more than ten years ago. Now I have read all the Whipples I am tempted to re-read them, starting with this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, lovely. I knew you were a fan! A friend picked this up for me in a charity shop, a lucky find as it’s in pristine condition. I’m sure Whipple would stand up to a re-read, especially given her skills with characterisation. There’s quite a lot of nuance in the portrayal of the younger Marwoods as their circumstances and personalities evolve over time.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it probably would be a good entry point. Ali started here, so if it worked for her it may well do the trick for you! (As you probably know, she’s read them all now – very much a Whipple superfan.)

      Reply
  8. Radz Pandit

    Very tempting review Jacqui! I have never read any Dorothy Whipple but am very keen to correct that. I was going to ask if this is a good place to start…and you have already answered that question:)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to see how you get on with her. She’s not quite in the same league as Elizabeth Taylor in terms of prose, but her insights into family relationships are very well portrayed.

      Reply
  9. Simon T

    It’s a whole world, isn’t it? I read it a year or two ago and, to be honest, don’t remember that much of the detail – but do remember it being immersive.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely! Even if Whipple is not the most polished or economical of stylists, there’s something very absorbing about the kind of world she captures in her books. Immersive is a great word for it – her stories really draw you in.

      Reply
  10. Scott W.

    This sounds great. Of Whipple I’ve only read High Wages, but this sounds like another book where the characters really stand out – and the thematic elements sound similar. Whipple’s definitely a writer I want to read again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I do find her novels (well, the two I’ve read so far) very absorbing. One of Whipple’s strengths is that her narrative arcs are never entirely predictable, even though they might appear to be heading a certain way at the start. So, you’re never quite sure how the story will pan out – or how her characters might evolve. I certainly feel that’s the case here, especially with the shift in focus halfway through.

      Glad to hear you liked High Wages. I’ll have to take a look!

      Reply
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