The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

I am not sure how I came across this book, it seems to be on a few blogs at the moment, probably sponsored by Virago who have released it recently. My copy was from the stacks below the library where they store all the books not on the shelves and was published in 1975. It would seem that Whipple has had waves of popularity since this was first written in 1939, a time of great change with the country on the verge of war.

There are lots of books where there is a group of people with established dynamics and then someone else joins and completely changes everything, and so it is in this book. The Marwood family consists of Major Marwood, a complete idiot, who does not have the money to live the life of luxury he is used to, with his sister the artist and two daughters, Penelope and Christine who confine themselves when not outside in the grounds to the top floor where the three nursery rooms are situated and which they have never moved out of. The Major decides that he can not bear to live in the house with its shoddy housekeeping any longer, no one is there to ensure his fire is lit when he gets home, and so he marries again, his first wife having died many years previously.

And so, in comes Anthea, rather diffident to start off with who unsettles everything especially once she becomes pregnant with the whole book being a treatise to change and marriage with elements of the differences for those that are rich or poor and on growing up.

It was a pity that it was only marriage that moved women about, Anthea reflected. Women moved to men, but otherwise they mostly stayed where they were born.


True for the rich before the war but not so much for everyone else, particularly during the war I imagine where women had to fill the roles left by men.

Whipple’s view of men was that they

. . . gave trouble all their lives to women and they start early.


This was shown in the book by Thompson, the groundsman and cricketer, chasing after younger women, by the Major being impossible to live with and by Nicholas, Christine’s husband, sleeping with an old female friend. There was even Anthea’s baby boy who the nurse deemed to not be as strong as his twin sister and so needed extra looking after. So, what are we saying? Is it women who make men like this?

Marriage does not appear to be a welcome institution on the surface for each of the married couples we encounter.

It was what the french call a ‘deception’ to Nicholas to find that after marriage, his life was much the same as before, and to Christine to find that hers was so different.


But in the end, they all seem to sort themselves out and return to their marriages apart from the Major and Anthea who go on living their separate lives.

The book is long but feels a little like a soap opera with event after event happening so that you don’t notice that you have worked your way through 528 pages. With the marriage of the Major to Anthea, I hoped that it would mean she came in and sorted everything out, brought the family together and found a way to make money as well. Superwoman! What Whipple does do is move us from this expectation to one that is less familiar and must have been extraordinary when it was first written, quite gently, so that you find yourself with Antha and the nurse living up in the nursery, Christine separated from her husband and living with her sister who is also trying to take Christine’s daughter away from her and adopt her. Christine ends up in a beauty salon, Nicholas as a fruit drinks seller with his parents worrying about him sat at home and the Major wombling on in his own way.

I did think the ending was a little trite and unfortunately not what happened in real life but this was a wonderful book about the changing, shifting shapes of families.

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