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The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
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The Priory (1939)

by Dorothy Whipple

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This novel centers on Saunby, a former priory that is now an ancient English estate owned by the Marwood family. Major Marwood is a handsome middle-aged gentleman who cares about nothing but cricket; he has neglected the upkeep of Saunby and completely ignored his daughters, Christine and Penelope. As a result, the girls have lived a strangely sheltered life and have had almost no education. Despite this unsatisfactory situation, none of the Marwoods seem to realize their plight – until the Major decides to marry again. When his new wife Anthea enters the house, things at Saunby slowly but irrevocably begin to change.

Although this novel was written just before the outbreak of World War II, it reads like a Victorian novel in many ways. Instead of focusing on just one protagonist and a few other central characters, this book explores the lives of everyone connected with Saunby, from the Major to the servants to Christine’s eventual in-laws. At times I felt like the book was wandering aimlessly, but I still found it very readable. I cared about all the characters and was rooting for them, so the book’s tragic moments really made an impact on me. The ending is bittersweet, but ultimately uplifting. I enjoyed this book a lot, though I couldn’t help wondering about some of the secondary characters, such as Bessy the maid and Penelope Marwood; their stories were never really resolved. Still, I would recommend this book to those who like the style and time period.
  christina_reads | Oct 28, 2011 |
This novel is about the Marwood family who live on the crumbling estate, Saunby Priory somewhere in the countryside of England. The Major has two young neglected daughters Christine and Penelope, and an elder son Guy who lives in London and is hardly ever seen. The Major himself can’t be bothered too much with his daughters and he allows them to roam the countryside, enjoying life and doing what they want. He spends most of his time trying to save as much money as possible for his annual cricket fortnight, something he loves most dearly in life and can do little else to save the estate or provide for his family. When he decides he needs to marry again he picks a much younger woman, Anthea who brings with her many sudden changes to the Priory and the family finds themselves thrust into different directions.

This book has a lot of strong points. It reads very well and the story keeps moving but the pace is never rushed. This is a story about family and about how times are changing for women, servants and the world. Even though the novel takes place on the brink of WWII, the author manages to leave readers feeling hopeful for the future of the family. The author creates the perfect blend of tragedy and triumph throughout the book. Also, Dorothy Whipple does such an excellent job with her characters because they are so well developed and all grow throughout the story that makes for very interesting reading. All of her characters are susceptible to human emotions such as jealousy, love, anger, lust, stubbornness and pride that create a bond between readers and the characters. The only plot line that I felt could have been better developed through the second half of the book was between Thompson, Betty and Bertha, which left me with little closure, even though it was realistic

Many people have compared her writing with that of Jane Austen and while I think Austen writing has more wit and sarcasm, Whipple is also a keen observer of human behavior and both writers are capable of taking simple domestic situations and infusing them with tragedy, sadness and hope.

I really enjoyed this book, I thought it was fantastic. This is the first novel that I have read by Dorothy Whipple and I will be looking to read more of her books in the future. I am so glad that Persephone Books decided to reprint this forgotten classic it is wonderful! ( )
1 vote Renz0808 | Feb 22, 2011 |
Persephone Books publish several of Whipple's novels, and she is for me one of the great finds by that publisher. Whipple's novels are unpretentious - domestic fiction in the sense that they deal primarily with family relationships. The final novel, the very fine 'Someone at a Distance', sold poorly, her work by that point unfashionable and out of step with a new crop of writers whose work was more gritty realism than hearth-and-home.

'The Priory' is set in a world of shabby gentility - the Marwoods employ servants, and the daughters of the house - despite being young women - are neither expected nor encouraged to find paid employment. The family is, however, on its uppers. When Major Marwood's devoted but neglected second wife produces twins, he is concerned only with how much these unwelcome children will cost him.

The fortunes of Major Marwood's chauffeur, Thompson, forms an 'upstairs downstairs' kind of sub-plot. Thompson marries Bertha when she tells him she's expecting a baby, but he remains in love with Bessy, who also loves him.

But the main story concerns the daughters of Major Marwood, Penelope and Christine. Though nearly grown-up, they still live (out of choice) in their old nursery, even sharing the same bedroom. When rudely turfed out by stepmother Anthea for her own babies, they are forced to join the adult world. Graceless Anthea is not a cruel stepmother, but she has no interest in the girls, who are to her merely drains on the family's already limited resources.

Penelope and Christine marry, but when Christine's marriage breaks down, she is forced to face an uncomfortable truth - she is, like so many women of her generation and upbringing, untrained, poorly educated, and unfitted for anything other than marriage and motherhood. Determined that her own daughter shall receive an education, she wonders, "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? ... '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."

The novel's ending is disappointing. The bulk of the story rings absolutely true, but in the final pages Whipple indulges her own desire for what should happen to Saunby, the home in which Christine and Penelope grew up and which their father is having to sell to clear his debts. In a sense the ending works better now than when published - unlike Whipple's original readers, we know what was looming (the Second World War), which the characters in the novel believe has been averted. Nevertheless, it's a weak and unconvincing ending to an otherwise absorbing tale of family life and everyday dramas. [February 2007] ( )
  startingover | Feb 1, 2011 |
A rather irregular family saga. It starts as a gently ironic observational comedy about an aristocratic family and their decaying mansion, but progresses to a full-blown melodrama full of rather cheap plot tricks (jealous sisters, evil femme fatales, sick babies) and rushed characterisation. There are still moments of gentle beauty and subtlety in the first part, particularly the scarecrow that reappears in various estate of decay to illustrate the passage of time. There is also a rather odd feeling to the ending, set around the time of the 1938 Munich pact, as the historical background is used somehow to illustrate the hopes for happiness for the characters (I ignore if that was a deliberate ironic effect sought by Whipple). ( )
1 vote MariaAlhambra | Jun 23, 2010 |
The Priory is the story of the Marwood family: the Major, willing to spend profligately on his cricket fortnights, but reluctant to spend money on electric lighting; Christine and Penelope, his two grown daughters, thrust from the nursery once their father marries a much younger woman; and Anthea, the Major’s second wife, who immerses herself in her own world once her children are born.

The other part of the novel’s story concerns the servants: the indomitable Nurse Pye; Thompson, cricketer and womanizer; Betty; and Bertha. All live in Saunby Priory, a former priory turned country mansion.

Not a lot “happens” in this novel; most of the action centers around emotion. It’s all about subtlety here. The novel’s description on Amazon compares Whipple with Jane Austen; but really, I think she’s more like Barbara Pym in the way that she treats her characters, exposing people’s strength and weaknesses unashamedly. According to the note at the back of the book, The Priory was based on real people; so much so that the models for the Marwoods and others were not amused at the characterization.

There’s a sort of Upstairs Downstairs feel to the novel (it was written thirty years before the BBC show), but ultimately the story belongs to the Marwoods, from tragedies to triumphs. And despite the fact that the book was written, and takes place, on the eve of a major catastrophe, Whipple infuses her novel with a sense of hope. The Priory is a Persephone classic; the image shown in the Amazon link above is the end paper, while the cover is actually the classic Persephone grey with yellow text box. Highly recommended, though it may be a bit hard to find. ( )
4 vote Kasthu | Apr 1, 2009 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dorothy Whippleprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Conville, DavidAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England has seen better times. This book shows two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself - and many changes begin.… (more)

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