The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

This is my second Whipple of the summer and a very entertaining read it turned out to be. I saw this described somewhere as 1930’s chick lit and I wouldn’t dispute that. It is very dramatic, emotional, concerned with families, marriage and children and is slightly neurotic. It wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed the ride.

Saunby Priory, the unkempt, rambling home of the Marwood family dominates the novel and is a touchstone for many of its characters. When the novel opens, Colonel Marwood lives in the house with his sister, Victoria, and his two distant daughters, Penelope and Christine. They are penniless and disconnected so the Colonel marries a local spinster, Anthea, hoping that she will put the house in order and bring discipline to his daughters. The early pages of the novel focus on Anthea so I thought that this novel was going to be her story and that we would read about her struggles with married life and financial difficulties. Whipple, however, steers the story down a completely different path and this unexpectedly becomes the tale of Christine and her experience after she leaves Saunby to get married and start a new life.

Colonel Marwood is obsessed with cricket and during his annual cricket fortnight Christine meets Nicholas Ashwell, a handsome son of privilege with a domineering father. Christine falls hopelessly in love and she and Nicholas hastily marry. Well, you can imagine the problems that accompany a young marriage between a sheltered wife and a spoiled and lazy husband.

Newstead Abbey, Whipple’s inspiration for Saunby Priory.

Christine always turns to Saunby when she is most desperate and toward the end of the novel I realized that the priory (though you would think the title would have given me a clue) was the major character of the novel, ever stable, ever reliable, bringing comfort and sanity to nearly every character.

This is one of those novels that has an exuberantly happy ending, with Saunby playing the main role in the conclusion. The majority of the characters suffer terrible trauma and sadness so I was glad that Whipple gave them some relief, though as the novel ends in 1938 their happiness might be short lived.

The Priory is a stylish domestic novel that completely consumed my attention. It may resemble chick lit, but as with the best domestic novels it explores social ills and world politics as they affect children and mothers – the people who are sometimes most affected by poverty and war yet least recognized as survivors. But it is also entertaining, featuring strong characters and a pleasingly twisty plot. I’ve really enjoyed both Dorothy Whipple novels I’ve read and look forward to reading many more.

Any suggestions for my next Whipple? I’m thinking perhaps They Were Sisters will be the one I try next.

18 thoughts on “The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

    1. You wouldn’t be disappointed if you did start reading it right away – It is a great fall read. My library has Someone at a Distance so I really should read that one next. I’ve heard great things about it!


  1. I read The Priory a couple of years ago and loved it! But something in me strongly objects to it being called chick-lit!! The term just sounds so condescending and belittling – it is so redolent of sun tan lotion and beach romances, and I don’t think The Priory comes under that heading at all. I found it well-written (granted, maybe not literature with a capital L, but good quality middlebrow fiction) and a thoughtful exploration of the decaying privileged world between the wars. There is perhaps a certain escapist dimension to it, but in my opinion this is balanced by the way the characters are confronted with real life in all its difficult complexity – and I was by no means sure all would turn out well in the end…
    Your comment about Christine’s relationship to the Priory reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara and the way she always turns to Tara for strength and consolation in times of trial. I think many English noble families felt the same way about their ancestral homes: they really were part of their identity. Just look at Vita Sackville-West and Knole, or the Flytes and Brideshead, to take examples both from real life and from fiction.


    1. I definitely don’t want to belittle The Priory! Referring to it as chick lit is probably not the best way to describe it, but I did not mean it to be derogatory. I suppose I really should have called it women’s fiction or domestic fiction. Thank you for pointing out the difference!
      The Priory, for Christine, is very similar to what Tara is to Scarlett. Both homes are a symbol of refuge and goodness in a chaotic and demanding world.


  2. I’ve only read Someone at a Distance too but I really want to read more of her books. Did you know that Newstead Abbey was Lord Byron’s ancestral pile? No wonder he became a poet!


  3. I was also thinking of Mansfield Park as I was reading your post – you can read that as a story of Fanny holding the family & the house together.

    I’d never heard about Dorothy Whipple before I started blogging, but she’s on my to-read list. This book sounds very appealing.


  4. 1930s chick-lit sounds pretty awesome, same idea but handled in a different way. How interesting that the priory is a character in itself. I’m the same as Lisa, never heard of Whipple until blogging, but if I’m guessing rightly from your photo that the book is a Persephone I’m likely to get to it sometime.


  5. After reading your review, I am going to read this book. I have never read anything by Dorothy Whipple and would love to learn more about this author. I love your photo of the always gorgeous Persephone edition, especially the colorful endpapers. What a treasure those books are!


  6. I loved The Priory! The other Dorothy Whipples I’ve read and loved were Someone at a Distance, which is also a Persephone; and Because of the Lockwoods, which is out of print but I think there are plenty of used copies floating around that you can find inexpensively. I also have Greenbanks; They Were Sisters; and They Knew Mr. Knight — I don’t know why I’ve waited so long to read them!


    1. I really enjoyed Greenbanks. It is a great book to read in the fall. I will probably take a little break from Whipple, but I am glad I’ve read her. Her books are quite absorbing!


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