The problem with giving people books for Christmas is the “one for you, one for me” principle. As I was doing a little gift-wrapping back in December I found myself flipping through several alluring volumes, this among them, and beetling over to the computer to secure them for myself. Second-hand, of course. Because The Priory is one of those beautiful Persephones and they tend to be expensive. But worth while.
Truthfully, I’ve been saving up Dorothy Whipple much as I’m saving up Elizabeth Taylor. There are moments in life when a few hours spent in prosperous between-the-wars-England feels totally restorative, and I’d reached one of those. I enjoy the gentility, not only of the setting but also of the narration. Whipple isn’t going to take me places I don’t want to go, though The Priory has its share of tragedy and even a glum and unsuccessful suicide attempt. Some characters make you want to shake them ’til their teeth rattle and some turn out to be more annoying or more tolerable than you’d at first understood.
The star of the show, though, is Saunby Priory, the home of the Marwood family. Saunby remains the same; the characters relate to it as much as to each other. It forms them and forces actions. A big estate on the grounds of a former monastery, it has been drifting into neglect at the hands of owner Major Marwood, a colossally selfish man who cares only about his own comfort — and cricket. Saunby is an outpost of the nineteenth century, a rural estate still supported by tenant farming, with 19th-century practices and habits lingering in the house. When the book opens, Marwood’s twenty-something daughters Claire and Penelope, minimally educated, still live separately up on the nursery floor of the house, contented but isolated. Marwood’s sister Victoria nominally runs the house but cares only about her dreadful paintings. The servants cluster comfortably behind the green baize door, resentfully performing the bare minimum of work. This fragile stasis crumbles when Marwood proposes marriage to Anthea, a middle-aged spinster, hoping that she will somehow, magically, be able to run his house economically, manage the servants, and concoct appropriate futures for Claire and Penelope. That is to say, marriage, because these barely literate girls are unfit to work. And in the world of this book “… it was only marriage that moved women about… Women moved to men, but otherwise they mostly stayed where they were born.”
Which would mean at The Priory, which Whipple describes in all seasons, with passionate lyricism. The estate — not so much the uncomfortable and disorganized house — is an antidote to the modern urban world. Well, don’t we all need that sometimes?