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The Priory

by Dorothy Whipple
Persephone book no:

39 40 41

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155301

The setting for The Priory is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times: its 'West Front, built in the thirteenth century for the service of God and the poor, towered above the house that had been raised alongside from its ruins, from its very stones. And because no light showed from any window here, the stranger, visiting Saunby at this hour, would have concluded that the house was empty. But he would have been wrong. There were many people within.'

This sentence is typical of the opening of a Dorothy Whipple novel. Gently, deceptively gently, but straightforwardly, it sets the scene and draws the reader in. We are shown 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.

'The Priory is the kind of book I really enjoy,' wrote Salley Vickers in the Spectator, 'funny, acutely observed, written in clear, melodious but unostentatious prose, it deserves renewed recognition as a minor classic. Whipple is not quite Jane Austen class but she understands as well as Austen the enormous effects of apparently minor social adjustments… Christine is a true heroine: vulnerable, valient, appealing, and the portrait of her selfless maternal preoccupation, done without sentiment and utterly credible, is one of the best I have ever come across. The final triumph of love over adversity is described with a benevolent panache which left me feeling heartened about human nature... A delightful, well-written and clever book.'

Also available as a Persephone eBook


The endpapers are taken from 'Wychwood', a 1939 screen - printed satin furnishing fabric designed by Noldi Soland for Helios; the pattern has an appropriately rural simplicity.

Picture Caption

'Kitchen Scene in the Beverley Arms' 1929, FW Elwell ©  FW Elwell Estate/National Trust, Nunnington Hall

Read What Readers Say

CM, Castle Douglas

Now I know I am coming rather late to this particular party, but I've just finished ‘The Priory’ and am flat on my back with admiration. What a story! And the imagery – the doll’s house furniture chestnuts, the stagnant pond pierglass – not to mention the merciless dissection of character. No one escapes it. I was reading standing up in the kitchen last night, supposed to be making the dinner, when Bessy went to the lake and so the potatoes boiled dry and ruined the pan, which is more Barbara Pym than Dorothy Whipple but still a testament. Then I stayed awake until 3 a.m. to finish it. Today is a bit of a blur as a result, but ‘The Priory’ was worth it.

December Tea (blogger)

For all the characters in ‘The Priory’ talk of the war is constantly in the air but remains in the distance, like a threatening thunderstorm that resides over the hills. For a novel that is part comedic, part domestic, part character study, and is fully enjoyable, there is a heaviness that lingers over the last third: knowing what comes next historically and what will happen to the people in it, leaves the reader with a sense of sadness, for this world will cease to exist at the end of the war. The characters may have avoided a conflict for now but it will come eventually, and that knowledge is what made me sad because hadn't the characters already endured enough? .The Priory. is one of my favourite books I've read all year. It stands up to modern literature, while also scratching that itch for something that should be a classic. The writing is witty, deep, and modern.

JacquiWine’sJournal (blogger)

‘The Priory’ is something of an Upstairs-Downstairs story, revolving around the residents of Saunby, a crumbling old estate in the middle of England in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is a very engaging novel, one that explores the complexities of family relationships and the choices we make when faced with significant change. For readers who enjoy a decent amount of plot, there are lots of interesting developments throughout the narrative as these families adjust and reshape themselves over time. Dorothy Whipple introduces various elements along the way, including compromising indiscretions, unwanted pregnancies, manipulative actions and painful separations. The narrative strands are thought-provoking and absorbing. The lack of options for women is a major theme throughout, particularly when marriage proves to be elusive – or worse, a failure. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the depth of characterisation Whipple brings to the story. The way that characters change and develop throughout the narrative is one of the most engaging aspects of the book. As the novel draws to a close, the threat of WW2 looms on the horizon. While the ultimate ending might feel too neat and tidy for some readers’ tastes, I was happy to go with it. This is good old-fashioned storytelling at its most enjoyable.

Categories: Family Woman and Home

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