I wrote my Master’s thesis on British author Dorothy Whipple’s novel The Priory (1939). I enjoy Whipple’s work. She has been called the Jane Austen of the 20th century by J. B. Priestley, a well-known British novelist and dramatist, but I don’t think she’s a literary genius. For me, she falls into the category of a forgotten female author, and I guess I’m on somewhat of a crusade (albeit a mild one) to resurrect and publicize her work. I’m not alone in this effort. Persephone Books is reprinting all of her work, among other forgotten female and male authors.
As to The Priory, it is a long book but a quick read. I like to think of it as “chick lit” of the 1940s, which I’ve written about in the context of Whipple here. It’s nothing too literary, nothing too stuffy, nothing too boring, but something with a little heft and morality despite its obvious plot turns.
The story goes something like this: Christine and Penelope are sisters who live in Saunby priory, a mansion that is ailing financially. Their father, Major Marwood, decides to marry a horse of a woman named Anthea, a spinster. When that Anthea has twins, the two girls are forgotten and half grown up already anyway. But concern for their welfare and upbringing gets lost along the way.
Christine meets an exciting cricket player named Nicholas from a well-to-do but nouveau riche family. The two fall in love, marry, have a child, and then things fall apart. I won’t tell you why they fall apart, in case you’d like to read the novel, but they do and the rest of the book is how the characters work out their problems, which seem monumental but are made more dramatic because of Whipple’s attention to them.
Feminism is what drew me to this novel. Throughout, Christine (among other female characters) attempts to change her circumstances, but she is limited. She has no education, no money, no family, and a child. This seeming entrapment reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she outlines that women must have money, education, and help with their children if they are to accomplish anything as great as men accomplish. I agree with Woolf, and I could see Whipple trying to articulate these sentiments as well. However, she ultimately fails. Despite Christine’s realization of her limits because of her sex, she does not make any great strides towards fixing those problems. She does resolve to do better for her own daughter, and perhaps at that time, that was the only thing she could do.
This problematic ending frustrated me in the middle of my thesis work. I had a crisis of confidence and on a whim, while my thesis adviser was in London and could not be contacted, I decided to change my thesis. I decided to throw away an entire semester of hard work and research and began to turn my attentions toward Josephine Johnson, another forgotten female author who is American and won the Pulitzer prize in 1935 for her first novel Now in November. She was only 24 years old at the time. I did research on Johnson quickly, despite the fact that I had already presented an early draft of my thesis at a conference and been nominated for best presentation by a graduate student. I had positive feedback from that conference and from my thesis adviser, but I still felt worried sick that in the end, it just would not work out.
And yet, it did. When my adviser returned, she decisively nixed my idea to change topics and we charged ahead. We decided to ground my work in a more clear picture of feminism’s history and its progress at the time of the novel’s publication. This resulted in some heavy (and enjoyable) reading about feminism’s roots. For instance, did you know that the term feminism began as feminisme in France in the 1880s? Or that women have been writing and agitating for women’s equal rights since at least the 1400s, and possibly (and very likely) before then? It’s been a long road for women. As recently as Dorothy Whipple’s childhood (she lived from 1893 to 1966), women were not educated, could not own their own land, and were considered to be property. If you are a woman, I’m sure you think all of this is ridiculous. It was! But this knowledge also makes me, as a woman, so grateful for the freedom that I do enjoy.
I think that’s why I admire writers like Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Whipple. They both lived through the indignities of a time when women were not equal. They both boldly wrote about and spoke out about these societal problems. They both realized that women deserved more and tried to pass that on through their work. Woolf succeeded. Whipple did too, but not as forcefully. She did not allow her characters to fly as they might, but perhaps she could not. As a woman herself, what choice did she have but to contrive “happy” endings for characters who were anything but happy with the injustices that plagued their lives.
If you’re interested in women’s history and feminism, here are some further suggestions for reading.
The Second Sex (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir
No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002) by Estelle B. Freedman
The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan
A Literature of Their Own (1977) by Elaine Showalter
Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2001) by Elaine Showalter
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (2002) by Naomi Wolf
Now, I also wrote about another of Whipple’s novels, Someone at a Distance (1953). It is the post on my blog with the least views. You can see it here if you’d like to give it a little boost. Someone at a Distance is one of Whipple’s best novels, in my opinion. It was also her last.