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.