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Friday, October 7, 2011

Slightly below the Whipple line

I have been on trains a lot recently, and apart from explorations with my new iphone (how did I not realise that I needed one before?), I have mostly been reading The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. I liked it. It was fun. It was good company. That said, a corner of my soul was a bit disappointed. The reasons are firstly that I loved loved loved Someone at a Distance, and so I had extremely high expectations. Secondly, I think that in reading this book, I have finally understood what Carmen Calil meant by “below the Whipple line”. It has plenty of good features. Like all Persephones, it is well-written. The problem that it is just not a satisfactory novel.

Let’s start with the good bits. The Priory is Saunby Priory, which we are given to believe is somewhere in the Midlands. Its days as a priory are well over by the opening of the novel and it has been, for generations in the hands of the Marwood family, who live there. Its owner is Major Marwood, and because he cannot afford to fix everything, he chooses to fix nothing. Basically, it is going to rack and ruin. The novel follows the travails of Major Marwood, his family and others who know them. All of the characters are in some way linked to the Priory itself.

The emphasis of the novel shifts around like a searchlight in a forest. For the first few chapters, the focus is very much on Anthea, the big-boned, middle-aged lady whom Major Marwood chooses for his second wife. He hopes for administrative assistance rather than romance and Anthea’s struggles to get it right and to be loved are touching and convincing. From Anthea, the spotlight switches to a below-stairs love triangle between two of the Priory’s maids and Major Marwood’s most ridiculous extravagance: Thornton, his paid, live-in cricketer. In its final sequence, the stage is dominated by Major Marwood’s two daughters, Christine and Penelope, and in particular by Christine.

If the novel has a heroine, then it is Christine. Christine is the person who realises and gives voice to the fact that they are all inextricably linked to the house, but also that the house, and its lack of usefulness is the problem. Not only is it too big to house a clutch of unproductive plonkers who can’t afford it. It is not what it was meant for. It was built to house a community, and it has been diverted from its purpose, to everybody’s detriment.

History looms large but subtly over this novel. It is set in the late 1930s, and with varying levels of consciousness, all of these characters are under the shadow of the coming war. The resolution of the novel (which is an ecstatically, nay, ludicrously happy one), coincides with the Munich crisis. The novel ends with its characters, like almost everyone else in Britain at the time, believing that war had been averted. As readers, we know different. Saunby is exactly the sort of house that was either sold or given to the National Trust after the war and this provides an interesting side conceit to the whole thing.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, in order to resolve the seemingly intractable problems of the characters, Whipple sacrifices convincingness. It just isn’t credible that the novel would be resolved as it is. The characters change their positions like weather vanes. Those who have rebelled, retract their rebellions. Walls that have been built are knocked down. Themes which have been carefully developed are dropped like stones. It reads like it was finished in a desperate hurry.

One of the main themes of the novel is how people deal with infidelity. This is a theme shared with Someone at a Distance, and it is one which Whipple takes seriously and does well. In The Priory, responses to infidelity are dealt with together with parenting. Some characters are pretty much neglected. Others are stifled with care and love and attention. Others are stifled with material comforts by their parents, and as a result are profoundly unhappy. They are unable to do anything or be anyone because they, even in adulthood, are so dependant on their parents. This theme was powerfully developed throughout the novel, but when it came to the ending, Dorothy Whipple pretty much ignores it. She rides roughshod over all of the well constructed themes that she has worked through the narrative.

I am tempted to sign myself: Disappointed, of London town.

There are other opinions to be found at My Porch and A Book A Week.


  1. Fascinating. I've read They Knew Mr Knight and Someone at a Distance and enjoyed them both but this does sound a bit of a mixed bag to say the least. That probably won't stop me giving it a go, though.

  2. I totally agree with you on the convincingness part. And the weirdest thing for me is that Someone at a Distance is my least favorite Whipple. I think her short stories work so much better than her novels because they don't have he same issues with convincingness.

  3. As always, your reviews are excellent in that they explore each aspect of the book in question. I am often inspired to read a book as a result of one of your reviews; not because you say it is 'good' but that it gives an overall portrait enabling me to come to my own decision.

    Thank you .... and keep on posting!!

  4. I completely agree with you and was also mildly disappointed with The Priory. Thought I was out on a limb as everybody else seems to like it. Well, it was an enjoyable read - but there was definitely something missing.

  5. Great review - thanks for posting.

  6. Thats a shame it didnt tick all the boxes for you. On a positive you reminded me that I have Someone at a Distance on my shelf waiting to be read!