The setting for The Priory is a large house ‘somewhere in England’, partly modelled on Newstead Abbey near Nottingham where Dorothy Whipple had a weekend cottage and partly on Parciau, the house on Anglesey where she stayed in 1934. And, as David Conville, who used to stay at Parciau as a child, writes in his Afterword: ‘The Parciau inhabitants in The Priory were hardly disguised.’ At the beginning of the book we see Saunby Priory: 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.’
The 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 evoked, we see the Major proposing marriage to a woman much younger than himself; and we understand how much will have to change. It is a classic plot (albeit the stepmother is more disinterested than wicked) and the book has many classic qualities; yet there are no clichés either in situation or outlook, just an extraordinarily well-written and absorbing novel by the writer who has been called the twentieth-century Mrs Gaskell.
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