2022: Book 12 – The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

The PrioryThe Priory
by Dorothy Whipple
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1939
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 536
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, classics club round 2

The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the 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.

This was my 1939 book. I thought it finished out the 1930’s for my Century of Women, but a closer look reveals that I still have 1933 to read, so that was a bit of a disappointment. I was very excited to close out a decade.

This book, though – not at all a disappointment. I have been meaning to read Dorothy Whipple for years, and I actually own a Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance (published in 1953), so when I saw that she had a title published in 1939 and my library had a copy, I decided to give her a try.

There was something about this book that reminds me of Dodie Smith’s beloved I Capture the Castle. It’s probably the utter uselessness of the prominent male figures – Major Marwood, in this one, spends all of his extremely scarce money on cricket, badly neglecting his obligation both to his home and his family; Mr. Mortmain, from I Capture the Castle, is a feckless writer suffering from writer’s block who would just as soon his family starve than engage with the world to feed them. I find this type of adult male character to be unbearably frustrating, especially in books set during the time period when women are unable to just get down to it and rebuild the family fortunes on their own.

However, like I Capture the Castle, there was a lot about this book that really charmed me. All of the characters were very complicated – except Major Marwood, who could have been hit by a bus and no one would have really lost anything. The two daughters, Christine and Penelope, were both interesting. I preferred Christine to Penelope – Penelope, as it turned out, had a lot of her father in her. But Christine, ultimately, finds a work ethic and some inner strength that I don’t think anyone would have expected to her to possess. I also really liked Sir James and Sarah, although Sir James, at least, provides quite a bit of domestic tension and has a lot of growing up to do for a man in his probable fifties.

I had a mixed opinion of Anthea; I liked her show of independence and strength a lot, and being married to Major Marwood would have been wildly infuriating, but she was really annoying about the twins. I’ve borne two children, and women who act like they are the first people on the planet to get pregnant, or that giving birth is some major accomplishment just irritate me. All mammals give birth; get over yourselves, ladies.

Anyway, it’s a testament to the quality of Whipple’s writing that I was so deeply engaged in an over 500 page book in which very little happens that I read it in less than a day. This is a book that I will ultimately buy after I return it to the library, so I can have it on my shelves and return to it again and again. I wish that she had written a sequel, so I could find out how Sir James’s new venture at the end turned out, and hear how these characters survived the war. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I closed the book.


    1. I am really excited to read more Whipple.

      I started my 1933 book last night – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. I have heard great things about it, although I’ve failed at getting into it before. I am going to power through this time – and I’m definitely in the proper mood for it this time around.

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