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Ultimately absorbing story about the position of women in 1930s society
on 25 September 2011
I so loved previous books I'd read by Dorothy Whipple that I was disappointed at first by The Priory, a novel set in the 1930s, before the start of the second World War. The inhabitants of the old house, built onto the ruins of an ancient priory, seemed unreal and hard to relate to. They live in isolation, out of touch with the outside world and largely ignorant of its customs. Someone at a Distance and They Were Sisters, on the other hand, were full of people who seem just as relevant today, albeit with different value systems. After about a hundred pages, though, I became just as engrossed in The Priory as I was in the other two books. The characters become more realistic as you get to know them, and those with whom you have the greatest sympathy early in the book may not be the same as those you sympathise with as the story progresses.
The Priory is owned by Major Marwood, who has no idea how to manage his finances or his household, is desperately short of money and is deeply in debt. He takes little interest in his family - indeed his only abiding interest is cricket on which he is prepared to lavish funds he can ill afford. He relies on his sister Victoria to run the house but she too has no interest in housekeeping and is seemingly unaware that the food is awful and the house falling into disrepair. She leaves the servants to do as they please, as a result of which they do not welcome subsequent attempts to influence their behaviour. The major's daughters, Christine and Penelope, whose education has been woefully neglected and who rarely interact with anyone else, entertain themselves in the garden and in the comfort of the nursery where they resent any intrusion.
Into this unlikely world steps Anthea, at about the same time as a new maid, Bessy, joins the household. Their interactions with the established characters become part of the evolving tale then, as the story proceeds, Anthea fades into the background and Christine, the older of the two daughters, emerges as the central character around whom the rest of the book revolves.
As in Dorothy Whipple's other books, The Priory highlights the challenges faced by women who did not marry, when women had few prospects unless they found a husband. For those who failed to do so, life could be tedious, unrewarding, and often miserable.
The ending is perhaps a little too neat, but overall it's an easy and undemanding read, an ideal book with which to relax. As with all Persephone books, this edition is beautifully presented, with its plain grey dust cover and attractive endpapers.