Title: The Priory
Author: Dorothy Whipple
Republished by Persephone Books
Setting: Rural Midlands in the Interwar Years
Main Characters: Major Marwood, Anthea Marwood (his second wife), Christine Marwood (elder daughter of Major Marwood), Penelope Marwood (younger daughter of Major Marwood), Nurse Pye, Aunt Victoria (spinster sister of Major Marwood), Mr. James Ashwell (wealthy former mill owner), Nicholas Ashwell (son of James Ashwell).
She saw for the first time that the history of Saunby was a sad one. It had been diverted from its purpose; it had been narrowed from a great purpose to a little one. It had been built for the service of God and the people; all people, but especially the poor.
‘And now it serves only us,’ she thought.
– Christine Marwood.
In Dorothy Whipple’s novel, ‘The Priory’ , Saunby Priory is a large landed estate associated with the ruins of a medieval Priory. In olden times, pilgrims had sought rest here, on their way to Canterbury from the North. Kindly monks had allayed their hunger and tiredness with bread, beer and a place to sleep at night. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation the Priory passed on to the Perwyns and thereafter to the Marwood family in 1793.
The story commences a few years prior to the onset of the Second World War. The state of affairs of Major Marwood’s country estate, Saunby Priory, lies as dilapidated as the ancient ruins that lie on the western edge of the manor house. The Major is a widower, his two young daughters, Penelope and Christine, aged 19 and 20, run wild all day on his estate, his elderly sister Victoria is unable to guide his household affairs and he lies on the verge of financial ruin. Every year to save himself and Saunby he sells a small parcel of property associated with his estate. Then, at the august age of fifty, he meets Anthea Sumpton and recognizes in her a woman who to his mind has the ideal characteristics of a second wife, i.e. she is sensible, devoted and no longer young. Importantly, she will in all probability not want to start a family. He marries her so that someone at last will take his household to hand and manage his life: his servants, his children and his annual fortnight of summer cricket.
Anthea Marwood feels that she is an unwanted intruder in the Marwood household.
The occupants of Saunby looked at her when she came into a room as people in a railway carriage look at a traveller who gets in later on the journey. The Marwoods, she was beginning to find out, were the sort of people who like a carriage to themselves
Despite the initial setback Anthea faces, she quite slowly but steadily starts to carve a niche for herself in the household.
Quite early on in the marriage, Major Marwood realizes with dismay that his marriage of convenience is turning out to be very inconvenient for him. Anthea, contrary to plans is expecting a child, an added expense in his mountain of debts. Anthea, focuses all her attention in gathering provisions for her child and securing his/hers future.
In the meantime, in a whirlwind romance, Christine Marwood falls in love with Nicholas Ashwell, son of a wealthy former mill-owner when he visits Saunby during the cricketing fortnight. Their infatuation results in a marriage proposal that Christine accepts. Christine on the eve of her marriage is faced with the unwelcome prospect of leaving Saunby, a place that has been her sanctuary for the entirety of her life.
‘I don’t want to go’ thought Christine…
‘I want to stay here, as I am.’
Nicholas was a stranger. A few months ago she had never heard of him and now she was going away with him, throwing in her lot with his. What was love that it made you think you could live with a stranger? You ought to find out first, you ought to be sure.”
As Christine embarks on a new, unfamiliar life in the coastal seaside town of Mansbridge, she finds herself missing Saunby more and more. She realizes that married life with Nicholas is not enough to fill the gap left in her heart by her absence from Saunby. Her married life is far from idyllic- Nicholas’s idle lifestyle, gaming, drinking and frittering his life away makes her long for her former home more and more.
Whilst visiting Saunby during her sister Penelope’s wedding she is reluctant to go home to Mansbridge and her husband.
There were some black and yellow striped caterpillars that covered the tansy plants at Saunby…If you moved them to another plant they either died or made their way back to the tansy. Christine, noticing them again now, wondered if she was going to be like that about Saunby; unable to live anywhere else.
However, life decides to take a sharp turn for the worse for Christine and she finds herself separated from her husband, each of them fighting their own separate battles under heart wrenching circumstances. Can Saunby save their future, their feeling of self-worth and purpose in life?
It is difficult to summarize the scope of a large 500 page novel like ‘The Priory’ within the space of a few paragraphs. The book is so much more than the collective story of personal incidents, trials and tribulations of a household. Whilst reading the story it is hard to gauge the actual focus of the story. Is ‘The Priory’ the story of Anthea Marwood’s gradual adjustment to her new household, her determination to secure a stable future for her children, the story of Christine Marwood’s move to the Ashwell family at Mansbridge and her yearning for Saunby or is it the story of Nicholas Ashwell’s frustration in life for being nothing more than a rich man’s son incapable of finding his own way in life? ‘The Priory’ is the summation of all these stories and more. It deals us a sharp lesson in the fragility of good fortune in life.
At the heart of the story is the medieval Priory and the attached house at Saunby. Serving the purpose of just a roof over the heads of a single household it is a drain of individual resources and is too large and unruly to manage by a single person. Essentially, ‘The Priory’ is the story of how the future of Saunby Priory might be diverted to recover the livelihoods, dignity and self-worth of a large community of people, united in their purpose. It is a beautiful novel, worthy of the highest praise and Whipple is an author, whose writing I look forward to reading more of, in the near future.