Sometime last year I started hearing all this book-blogger hoopla about someone named Dorothy Whipple. All I knew is that I would most likely like her since 1). they were included in the Persephone line-up and 2). she sounded a bit like Elizabeth Bowen-meets-Barbara Pym-meets-Rebecca West-meets-Dodie Smith. I seem to have a fervent obsession with books written by British women between 1910 and 1944, so I was all over some Whipple. No local library had a Whipple novel so I harnessed the power of Interlibrary Loan and obtained a copy of The Priory.
The novel is begins in the best way: a deepening evening dusk in winter with a much neglected 13th century priory (Saunby) filled with an impoverished landed gentry family in the time period before World War II. The Marwoods have name and distinction, but are quite cash poor. The patriarch, Major Marwood, is incapable of managing his estate or communicating with his family. He lives for cricket and his chauffeur, Thompson, functions as both a servant and a best friend. Major Marwood's son, I can't remember his name, is barely in the story as he is embarrassed by his family and therefore has made his own name as a barrister in London. The rest of the family is composed of Major Marwood's sister, Victoria, and his daughters, Christine and Penelope. Victoria is a spinster who wears white stockings and paints badly and often. Christine and Penelope are both in their late teens and have spent the bulk of their lives still living in the nursery and doing as they pleased.
After reading the first few chapters, I mistakenly believed that I was set for a comedy with bits of drama. I was picturing quirky relatives and minor tragedies. Little did I know that The Priory, while filled with wit, is a darker and more thoughtful novel. The novel turned when Major Marwood decided to marry Anthea -- a lonely woman of "good breeding" who is in her mid-30s. Major Marwood marries her for the sole purpose of having a woman manage the house, his cricket matches, and to order the servants. Anthea -- unaware of Major Marwoods ulterior motives -- marries him for love. On her honeymoon, Anthea realizes that Major Marwood is a selfish, juvenile, and certainly not in love with her, she is brokenhearted, but endeavors to do her best for the Major.
As I continued to read, I realized that the novel is truly about the difficult position of women in the 1930s. Each character is somehow restrained by circumstances outside her control. Seriously, every woman survives by wit, smart marriage, and personal resourcefulness.
- Anthea Marwood-- she is trapped in a loveless marriage, but plunges herself into her role as a mother, using her children's well-being as a way to make changes to the household.
- Bessy -- a kindhearted and hardworking maid who finds herself pregnant by Thompson, attempts suicide, miscarries, and ends up marrying someone she doesn't truly love.
- Bertha -- a crass and scheming maid, Bertha traps Thompson into marrying her and lives out her life as she pleases.
- Christine Marwood Ashwell -- She marries the young cricket player Nicholas Ashwell. She loves him to pieces, but when there marriage falls apart she finds herself having to give up her daughter temporarily to work. She has no one to depend on and no way to make money or care for her daughter.
- Penelope Marwood Kenworthy -- Penelope hates her life at Saunby since her sister married and Anthea had her babies. She can't work due to her lack of education and experience and so she calculates to marry Paul Kenworthy. Paul is kind to Penelope, but Penelope certainly isn't in love with Paul.
- Sarah Ashwell -- The mother of Nicholas, Sarah's other son died as a child and ever since Sarah cannot bring herself to criticize or voice her opinion to her husband or her son. She suffers quietly.
- Cicely Hoyle -- Although she isn't a likable character, Cicely desires Nicholas and attempts to mold herself to his desires, but to no avail. She ends up alone, miserable, and forgotten.
All of this struggle is set against the backdrop of impending war and after the devastation of World War I. Christine discusses the plight of women when she muses over her daughter, Angela:
"Women are being pushed back into homes and told to have more babies. They're being told to make themselves helpless. Men arming like mad, but women are expected to disarm, and make themselves more vulnerable than they already are by nature....They urge women to produce babies so they can wage wars more successfully with them when their mothers have brought them up....Well, this has taught me one thing.... If I've to scrub floors or eat the bread of dependence all my life, Angela, shall be educated to earn her own living. She shan't find herself in the hole I'm in now if I can help it." (pg. 425-426)Not all is abysmal for the characters in The Priory. In fact, the ending of the book was a bit too perfect for me. Relationships are mended, families reunited, and certain financial disaster quelled. However, this book was written shortly before World War II and as a post-World War II reader I can say that there are bittersweet elements to the ending.
I'll certainly be seeking out more Whipple and I have a feeling that this book is a definitely has rereading potential. I feel like this is an anti-climatic and cliched way to end this review, but all I have to say is that I adored this novel to pieces and it has really given me a great deal to think about. If you're a fan of West, Bowen, Pym, or Smith add Whipple to your list of authors to read!