It’s turning out to be all Whipple all the time on Stuck in a Book right now. Well, long before I started Random Commentary, I was already reading the monster that is The Priory (1939). It’s enormous. My copy is 528 pages – I basically never read books that are over 500 pages, and that’s why I’ve had my copy for nearly 14 years (gasp, how did time pass that quickly?)
I bought it just before I started university, while on a trip to the Bookbarn to buy books for my course. This was, ahem, not for my course – but I couldn’t resist. And it was only when I got home that I discovered that my copy was… signed by Dorothy Whipple!
Obviously my copy is much older than the Persephone edition – which I do also have, as I can’t bring myself to get rid of either copy. And it starts like this…
It was almost dark. Cars, weaving like shuttles on the high road between two towns fifteen miles apart, had their lights on. Every few moments, the gates of Saunby Priory were illuminated. Every few moments, to left or to right, the winter dusk was pierced by needle points of light which, rushing swiftly into brilliance, summoned the old gateway like an apparition from the night and, passing, dispelled it.
The gates were from time to time illuminated, but the Priory, set more than a mile behind them, was still dark. To the stranger it would have appeared deserted. It stood in dark bulk, with a cold glitter of water beside it, a cold glitter of glass window when clouds moved in the sky. The West Front of the Priory, built in the thirteenth century for the service of God and the poor, towered above the house that had been raised alongside from its ruins, from its very stones. And because no light showed from any window here, the stranger, visiting Saunby at this hour, would have concluded that the house was empty.
But he would have been wrong. There were many people within.
So – what’s The Priory about? The house in question is called Saunby Priory, and is the vast home belonging to the Marwood family. There is grumpy widower Major Marwood, who lives only for the cricket season – which he throws large sums of money at, while the rest of the year he is a fierce penny pincher. There are his daughters Christine and Penelope, still in the nursery though now newly grown up. And there is a handful of servants who occasionally war with each other and occasionally sleep with each other (in a tactful 1930s way, of course).
Curiously, the Priory never felt very big to me. After that introduction, the scenes inside the house are rather claustrophobic – people worrying about space, getting in each other’s way, or being moved to make room for others. I wonder how deliberate that was.
There are a series of stages, where the entrance of a new character into the scene changes things – the first being the shy, anxious woman who will become Major Marwood’s new wife: Anthea. She is old enough that she believed she would always be a spinster, and is keen to accept his fairly ungracious proposal – which he makes by phone, because he doesn’t want the bother of going around to her in case she says no. There are also men who enter stage left to woo the girls; there is a passage of time in London. It is all very involved, and spaced evenly throughout the hundreds of pages – like an ongoing soap opera of events, neatly paced and always meeting the anticipated dose of emotion. There is also humour, particularly at the beginning, though the tone of the novel grows a little more melodramatic as the pages go by.
The Priory doesn’t have the psychological nuance of some of Whipple’s other novels. (That’s my view anyway – see review links at the bottom for different opinions!) Because her tapestry of events is so protracted, and must be filled, each one gets its moments of alarm and pathos, and everybody reacts in heightened dialogue before neatly moving onto the next moment. For instance, Anthea moves from being a timid new bride to ruthlessly running the household for the protection of her new babies, but settles into the new role so comfortably that it doesn’t feel as though a psychological shift has taken place so much as a new set of characteristics has been introduced. The same is true for the daughters as they experience marriage, parenthood, and adult woes.
Which is not to say that what is here isn’t a joy to read. It is – I moved through the novel very happily, enjoying every page for the entertaining soap opera that it was. I suppose my only point is that Whipple can do better, in terms of insight and depth – but not every novel needs to be insightful and deep. Some can just be engagingly written and immersively enjoyable – indeed, that is no mean feat. Yes, it could have been 200pp shorter without losing very much – I’d have advised staying in the Priory and not wandering off around the country – but I can’t disagree with the tribute that E.M. Delafield gave the novel in The Provincial Lady in Wartime:
What, I enquire in order to gain time, does Mrs. Peacock like in the way of books?
In times such as these, she replies very apologetically indeed, she thinks a novel is practically the only thing. Not a detective novel, not a novel about politics, nor about the unemployed, nothing to do with sex, and above all not a novel about life under Nazi régime in Germany.
Inspiration immediately descends upon me and I tell her without hesitation to read a delightful novel called The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, which answers all requirements, and has a happy ending into the bargain.
Mrs. Peacock says it seems too good to be true, and she can hardly believe that any modern novel is as nice as all that, but I assure her that it is and that it is many years since I have enjoyed anything so much.
Others who got Stuck into it:
“The best thing about this book is the characters. Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.” – Books and Chocolate
“It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.” – Bag Full of Books
“Not a lot “happens” in this novel; most of the action centers around emotion. It’s all about subtlety here.” – A Girl Walks into a Bookstore
There is also an enjoyable write-up in the Persephone Forum.