Major Marwood lives on an old estate (Saunby Priory) with his two teen-age daughters and spinster sister Victoria. Like many of England’s estates after the Second World war, his finances simply cannot keep up with modern demands. The rental cottages and farms that he owns and his large majestic home are deteriorating with no means of improvement. However there is one thing that the Major will happily spend money on, and that is hosting huge annual cricket matches. These events require opening his home to numerous guests in the neighborhood and area teams, purchasing vast amounts of food for teas, breakfasts, and lunches, and providing comfortable lodging.
He leans on his hired help, (although the cook is simply awful and the food therefore must be catered), and most of all his ‘man’ Thompson. Thompson is a chauffeur, estimable cricket player, and general dogsbody who is called upon to rescue the Major whenever a new conundrum pops up.
It would be convenient for everyone if the Major’s artistic sister Victoria could lend a hand and take over the housekeeping, but unfortunately her paintings (which no one seems to admire very much) take up all her time (put down that paintbrush and take charge, Victoria!) And so as the house deteriorates more and more and the annual cricket match looms, it is apparent that the best thing for the Major to do is to find himself a new wife.
And so, along comes Anthea. She will fit the bill admirably… at least, the Major hopes so, although his two reclusive daughters, Christine and Penelope, are quite dismayed by their father’s remarriage. Content to remain in the attic nursery they grew up in, Christine and Penelope are dreading the changes a stepmother will bring into the home. However, proving that life is constantly changing, they find ways to cope… and the reader is caught up into the lives of this interesting but often quirky-character novel of country life in England.
“Things were breaking up. Everything was changing. It no longer seemed to matter who one was. Daughters of good families were breaking away in all directions. They went to universities, they went on the films, sometimes they just went. There was hardly anybody left to play cards and tennis in the afternoon…”
We are pleased to see Anthea take her place and become more determined to find her own happiness. The dawning realization of the true state of things and the marriage she has entered into does not compel Anthea to become discouraged. She learns to take charge, rout the lazy, inefficient cook, and find an friend and helpful aide in the nurse she hires (the indomitable Nurse Pye). And as always happens, the girls grow up and Christine finds happiness (for a time) in marriage. Penelope will make a calculated choice to provide herself with security. And always at the back of their minds lies Saunby Priory.
“She stared round in a fierce effort to fix it all indelibly in her mind’s eye and her memory so that it would be there forever.
If only you could hold on to something,’ she thought. ‘Everything fleets past you. No, its you who are fleeting past the rest. Saunby has been here a long time and will be here a long time still. It’s I who pass across it and pass on.’
This thought disturbed her and broke her mood of reflection. She could not hold on to Saunby, she could not hold on to so much as her own moods. Like everyone else’s they were always changing, hurrying her from one aspect of life to another. Now she was suddenly lonely. She wanted to grasp at someone subject to transitoriness like herself. She wanted to make some contact, however trivial, with another human being…’
“The Priory” is a novel of individual choice and motivation, as each character’s story alternates between servants and gentry. The decisions each one makes reflects not only the influences of personal preference and background but the times in which this novel is set, pre-world-war 2 England.
When the radio announces that war is averted everyone rejoices: “Life had been given back to them and they were delirious with the gift. The immense wave of hope and goodwill that was sweeping over the world engulfed Red Lodge too. This was the time when miracles could have been accomplished, when, if they could have come at each other, the peoples of Europe would have fallen on one another’s necks like brothers and wrung one another’s hands with promises of peace.”
There are simply too many threads in this involved, absorbing novel to adequately describe all the sub plots and layers within each character. This was not my favorite (by far) of the Whipple novels I have read to date, however, I did enjoy this and once again had a hard time not reading into the early hours to find a satisfying ending.