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.