‘The Priory’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

I had been saving the fortieth Persephone publication, Dorothy Whipple’s The Priory, for a literal rainy day.  Take it from me – there is little better than a new Persephone to get stuck into when the rain is pouring down outside, and you’ve finished running all of your errands.  A chunky novel such as The Priory provides an even better treat.  I therefore settled down to read this on a gloomy September day.

First published in 1939, and set in the late 1930s, The Priory was the third of Whipple’s novels to be republished by Persephone.  The novel takes place in Saunby Priory, a ‘large house somewhere in England which has seen better times’.  Like much of Whipple’s work, it follows a central family, as well as those connected, in various ways, to them.

At the heart of this novel are the Marwoods; the widowed Major father, and two adult daughters, Penelope and Christine, who still live at home.  The sisters are described by the publishers as being ‘more infantile than most’; they have been sheltered from the outside world throughout their lives, and have very little independence to speak of.

When the reader is introduced to the Priory, it is ‘… still dark.  To the stranger it would have appeared deserted…  [There was] a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky.’  At this point in time, the young women are in the nursery, surrounded by a dressmaking pattern.  They have not moved from the nursery since they were born: ‘Their set of rooms was quite complete; a little world of its own shut off from the downstairs adult world by a stout oak door at the top of the stairs.’  This isolation, much of it self-imposed, has had a real effect on the sisters.  Whipple writes that it had ‘encouraged in them the family tendency to detachment.  They didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like to be asked to do anything, they didn’t like fixed hours or fixed appointments, they didn’t like taking part in other people’s affairs at all.’

Penelope and Christine’s spinster aunt, Victoria, sits three storeys below them, ‘in the dark, her white stockings alone betraying her presence.’  The women, and the servants, are all waiting for the now impoverished Major Marwood to put the electricity on at the outset of the novel.  Whipple comments: ‘Since he was very economical in everything that did not directly affect his own comfort, the household had to wait for light until he wanted light himself.’

Major Marwood received the Priory as inheritance, but continually laments that he did not just stay in the army: ‘… Saunby was a mill-stone round his neck; a beautiful and honourable mill-stone, a mill-stone conferring great distinction, but a mill-stone.’  Very early in the novel, he decides to propose marriage to a woman named Anthea, some years his junior.

When her acceptance is revealed to the sisters, they are shocked: ‘To marry at forty and fifty.  It shouldn’t be done.  Such bad taste…  their own father…  What amazed them now was that he was going to be different, he was going to be connected with somebody else, with a wife?  It was incredible.  It was stupefying.’  They go out of their way to stay out of Anthea’s way, spending more time than ever in each other’s company.

I do not want to give anything away about the plot, as one of the real delights of The Priory is the changes of direction which it takes.  Whipple’s story, and her characters, are both splendidly drawn.  Whipple’s characters immediately feel so realistic.  They are concerned with real, understandable things, and their relationships with one another are multilayered and complex.  Whipple is so interested in how her creations are affected by circumstance, particularly when this suddenly or dramatically changes.  Few authors reveal quite as much as Whipple does about her characters.  I soon became absorbed into the world of the Marwoods.  Their development is steady and believable.  There is a quaintness to Whipple’s work, but her writing, as ever, holds what feels like a very modern quality.

I am thrilled that so much of Whipple’s work has been republished by the wonderful Persephone Books, and so pleased that I still have a few titles outstanding to read.  Reading The Priory was a delight from start to finish, and I absolutely adored it.

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