Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple
"It was a great pity, she thought, that all the violence of life should fall on the young, before they have acquired any resistance to it."

Ever since I began reading about Persephone books in the blogosphere, the same author's name kept popping up over and over:  Dorothy Whipple.  All the Persephone fans seemed to just love her books.  Well, I have taken the plunge, and I am officially on board.  She is just wonderful.  I just finished my first Whipple, The Priory, and I loved it.  It's more than 500 pages, but I could not put it down.  It's my fourteenth Persephone book so far and I think it is my favorite.

The story is set in the late 1930s, just before the war, and centers around the Marwood family who live in Saunby Priory.  The patriarch is Major Marwood, a fiftysomething widower who doesn't want to spend any money keeping the place up since he'd rather spend all his money funding cricket matches.  His wife is long dead, his oldest son has escaped to a job in London, and his two daughters, Penelope and Caroline, are in their early twenties and don't do much of anything.  There's also an aunt, Veronica, who lives off her brother and spends all her time painting. There are various servants, and a good section of the book is devoted to them as well, a bit like Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park (though much less posh).

The Marwood family is shaken up when the Major decides to remarry a local spinster, Anthea.  Basically, he wants some unpaid help running the estate and his annual cricket gatherings.  This upsets the balance of the family and the plot starts moving along with various romances and love affairs, pregnancies, babies, and scandals.   One thing I found interesting about this book is that the focus of the book shifted several times -- at first I thought all the action would be about one character, and then the reader wouldn't hear about this character for a long time.  A couple of interesting characters unfortunately seemed to disappear -- perhaps Whipple didn't know how to incorporate them back into the story.

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.  In one of my favorite passages, Nicholas, who's fallen in love with Christine Marwood, is trying to figure out how he could ever get a job to support her and himself so they can get married:

He decided to 'hang on for a bit' until things improved.  If they ever did.  There would probably be a war before long, and then he, with the rest of his generation, would be employable again; as soldiers.  When most of them were killed, competition for jobs would be lessened, he thought cynically.  The uncertainty of the times affected Nicholas adversely.  He had a secret feeling that nothing was worth doing, because nothing would last.  He felt he might as well have a good time while he could, because to-morrow, or the day after, the good times would be over.


Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Priory

I found the characters in this book engrossing, especially against the backdrop of the war.  It was published in 1939 so Whipple couldn't have known how everything would turn out.  I think this is my favorite Persephone so far, even better than Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle's Book.  I just wish it was easier to get on this side of the Atlantic.  However, I predict I'll be giving this one out as presents for any appropriate occasion -- my 2011 Secret Santee will probably get a copy of this if he or she doesn't own it already!

I didn't buy a copy of this, since I was actually able to get it through Inter Library Loan.  But the other neat thing about reading this was that the copy I borrowed came from the University of Central Arkansas and it was a first edition from 1939!!  It still had the pocket with the card in it, and the slip with the date stamps showed all the due dates from previous borrowers, starting in December 1939.  I don't think anyone checked it out after 1950, which I find sad because I loved it so much.  I was sorry to have to return it and I definitely want to buy my own copy.

13 comments:

  1. Wow - I love it when books have a history of their own. And fantastic that you've discovered Whipple - many wonderful books ahead of you - wha will be next I wonder?!

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  2. Verity -- I still have Someone At a Distance on my to-read shelf, so that will probably be my next Whipple (unless Santa leaves one under my tree). I look forward to reading all of them.

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  3. Welcome to the We Love Whipple Club :) What a treat you have ahead. The Priory is one I haven't read yet (nor own) but I loved Someone at a Distance, They Were Sisters & will be reading The Closed Door & Other Stories over the festive break.

    Perhaps you'll read more Whipple during the Persephone Reading Weekend?

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  4. I hate to say it, but I don't think this sounds like one I'd like, particularly if characters disappear never to be reintroduced...I'm so picky about writing and technique...

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  5. Oh I LOVED this - I always struggle to choose a favourite Whipple - I have never reread them so they haven't had the chance to become ingrained into my consciousness yet a la Austen but I do think The Priory is one of her best. So meaty and rich and wonderfully characterised. I'm so glad you enjoyed your first step into Whipple land - you have so much joy yet to come!

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  6. Your review has reminded me how much I enjoyed this book. It was my first Whipple. And I love the story of the copy you got to read. It is sad that it hasn't been checked out since the 50s, but it is also kind of cool that you were the one to bring that treasure out of hiding 60 years later.

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  7. I just got my first Persephone book for the Persephone Secret Santa, and I'm excited for it -- and I've read quite a bit about Miss Whipple lately, so I look forward to ordering this one!

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  8. Another Whipple fan, how lovely. The Priory was probably the Whipple I least enjoyed, I think because of the shifting focus between the characters. I've always wanted to reread it as I love her other books so much that I want to give The Priory another go. Someone at a Distance is wonderful, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

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  9. Your review has made me want to read more Whipple. I would highly recommend Someone at a Distance.

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  10. I think I really need to read some Whipple, too. People DO seem to adore her, and she converted you quite quickly as well! She must be good :-)

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  11. I've never heard of Dorothy Whipple before, but your review makes the book sound very interesting and somehow warm.

    Also, I don't own any Persephone editions, but I want to collect them. They're all very beautiful. :)

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  12. That's cool about the copy that you found via interlibrary loan. Like you, I've heard a lot about Whipple but I haven't taken the plunge - yet!

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  13. 14th you read and yet still your FAVORITE!!! I must find this, how awesome.

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