TOAST Magazine

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple | Book Club


This month we asked the team at Persephone Books – an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury – to guest write our book club review. The novel they chose was The Priory by Dorothy Whipple – ideal for summer reading.

Dorothy Whipple is Persephone’s most beloved author and all her novels are now in print. The Priory was her fifth: it was published in July 1939 and was the must-read on the beach that summer, a book about the world that was about to be lost and the one that was being born.

A very long novel, it is yet curiously page-turning, just like all Dorothy Whipple’s books: for she had the great gift of writing about everyday domestic life, about families and about relationships, without ever being in the least bit dull. It was a most unusual gift, one which is shared by very few writers (although the names Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell come to mind). Readers who prefer ‘literary’ fiction or Modernism or prose which can be examined through the lens of literary criticism generally do not ‘get’ Dorothy Whipple. But most people, once they have read one of her books, want to read them all.

The Priory is a good novel to start with. It is not at all harrowing (the shipwrecked marriage in Someone at a Distance or the psychopathic husband in They Were Sisters are both a tad upsetting) nor does it have the feminist stance of High Wages (about a girl setting up a dress shop) or the almost claustrophobic description of small town provincial life in Greenbanks or Because of the Lockwoods. The novel’s central focus is simply a large house in the country and the lives of its inhabitants, both upstairs and downstairs, during the 1930s. They, and the house, have seen better times; the patriarch remarries; war gets closer: no one really confronts this, although the reader, who has hindsight, does of course.

To begin with the inhabitants of this large house somewhere in England (although the original, on which Saunby Priory is based, was in Wales) might seem unappealing; but the reader is quickly caught up in their lives, and very soon cannot stop turning the pages to find out what happens to them. In one sense Dorothy Whipple was more interested in character than in story; but what happens to her characters is the story.

We follow 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 to happen.

There are many neatly interwoven threads in The Priory: love, or the lack of it, or the difficulty of expressing it; marriages, good and bad, marriages of the rich and of the poor; lost mothers, lost children; lost dreams, and the acceptance of loss. But most of all it is a novel about change and about growing up. Dorothy Whipple takes her reader through something of the same process – lulling us into the gentle security of the eccentric upper class household, allowing us to hope that the Major will be softened by marriage and fatherhood, that the girls will find Mr Right, or nearly Right. Subtly and unexpectedly and without moralising she shifts her reader as well as her characters out of their comfort zone.

Images by Thom Corbishley.

Persephone Books is an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury. It is dedicated to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers. You may have seen their signature, dove grey covers (with end papers in a fabric that was designed in the year in which the novel was first published) in many a book shop. It is fair to say that a Persephone cover is a guarantee of good reading.

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