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The Priory

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by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple, who lived from 1893 to 1966, has the distinction of being one of few authors to have had more than one work published by Persephone. The publisher that prides itself on presenting long-neglected masterpieces by female authors in attractive bindings has clearly decided that Whipple is an unsung genius. Either that or they have been able to obtain the requisite permissions cheaply.

It is not for me to say whether Dorothy Whipple is deserving of this new attention, but I can genuinely say that I enjoyed The Priory. For its time (it was first published in 1939), it is a long novel, at 528 pages. (All Persephone's publications are the same price, regardless of thickness.)  Had it been written today, it might have been shelved under "family sagas", but it doesn't exactly belong to that genre. The story of a house, rather than the people who live there, it contains comedy and tragedy, and it quickly engages the reader.

Whipple's style is at times rather lacking in colour. The story is told in the simplest possible terms, even when describing emotional crises:

"To-morrow morning he would go. He would be gone and they had not said anything to each other. They had hardly been alone together for more than five minutes at a time and that was her fault."

This is deceptive. Despite the apparent failure to delve into the deepest feelings of the characters and explore their personalities, the crucial moments are both moving and believable - particularly the responses of the leading individuals to the phenomenon of parenthood, in which the contrasts between them are clearer than anywhere else.

Where the reader is likely to be disappointed is in the development of the plot. The central focus gradually moves away from Anthea, the unhappily-unmarried young woman who is lured by his veneer of charm to become the second wife of selfish Major Marwood at the beginning of the novel. The rest of Major Marwood's family - his spinster artist sister and his two emotionally-immature daughters - behave in an equally self-centred manner. Only Bessy, an open-hearted and innocent domestic servant, appears worthy of our sympathy, and we feel deeply for her when her love for Thompson, the Major's arrogant manservant, leads her astray. Yet, by the end of the book, the focus has moved again, and the reader is completely taken up with the feelings and actions of the Major's elder daughter, Christine.

An attempt is finally made to draw together these strands, in the saving of Saunby, the house at the centre of the book, which, throughout, has given every indication of being well on its way to rack and ruin. Saunby, despite all attempts at physical description, does not draw us into its enchantment. It is nothing like as easy to envision as, for example, the house in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, a novel of a similar vintage. As for the ending, without resorting to spoilers I can say that it is too glib, lacking in conviction, and, despite frantically attempting to tie up every loose end in the space of a chapter, it leaves several important questions unanswered.

Was there ever the intention of producing a sequel? If so, it was surely destroyed by the advent of war -- a subject that plays no small part in this novel. By the time Dorothy Whipple knew the outcome of World War II, it would have been hard for her to return to these characters and this situation.

Moreover, as we are told in an afterword by David Conville, the house and its inhabitants were loosely but recognisably modelled on a real house and family, the Williamses of Parciau in Anglesey. Any attempt to develop the story further might have been hampered by the author's need to seek inspiration in real places and people. Far better to leave Saunby where it is in the closing pages of The Priory. A reader of 1939 would have been unable to predict how the Marwood family might end up, and it is pointless for us to try.


ISBN 1 903155 304
Published by Persephone Books, 2003
536pp, paperback
Retail price 10

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher