So begins The Priory, Dorothy Whipple’s third novel, originally published in 1939, and republished by Persephone Books in 2003. It is one of those books where the setting is so evocative that it is almost a character in its own right.
Thanks to David Conville’s fascinating afterward we know that Whipple based The Priory on two existing country houses: for the location and history she chose Newstead Abbey (Lord Byron’s old family seat in Nottinghamshire); however the characters were inspired by people she met whilst staying at another country house, Parciau, in North Wales.
Saunby Priory is a run down country house in the Midlands. The current heir to the estate, a middle-aged widower, Major Marwood, cares more for his annual cricket fortnight than for either his country pile or his two almost-grown daughters who, along with his spinster sister, also live in the house. At the start of the novel the major decides that the answer to his unsatisfactory situation is to remarry, and fires off an ill-thought-through marriage proposal to the only suitable woman he can think of. This sets in turn a chain of events that propel the narratives of all the Saunby inhabitants in the years immediately preceding the Second World War.
The main storylines involve the major, his new wife, and teenage daughters, but Whipple interweaves a ‘below stairs’ narrative involving maids and groundsmen, which, although just a subplot, is realised with intelligence and tenderness.
We know from David Conville’s afterward that Whipple based many of the characters in The Priory on people she met whilst visiting Parciau. When The Priory was published she even sent a copy to the Williams family (her Parciau hosts), inscribed ‘Those as others see them’. I think perhaps this is why the characters in The Priory are so quirky and three dimensional – because they are based on actual people, rather than just drawn from the author’s central casting. The exceptions to this are two women (I won’t say who for fear of giving way spoilers) who are portrayed as typical brassy temptresses setting out to seduce otherwise decent men. These women were useful to Whipple to move her plot forward, but from the viewpoint of a 21st century reader are irritatingly 2-D. I forgive Whipple because the other characters work so well, and the novel is engrossing, but the stereotype of scheming hussy/scarlet woman would be seen as lazy characterisation in a modern author.
That aside, I loved The Priory. What I particularly liked was that although Whipple sewed up the plot ends neatly, the novel finishes within days of the outset of WW2, so we know that all those happy endings are just about to be torn apart, and a new chapter will begin for Saunby Priory…
In short – think down-at-heel Downton Abbey, in the run-up to the Second World War: fading glamour meets gritty reality, with a quirky, engaging cast.