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.
I enjoyed reading your review of this novel. I’ve never heard of this book or writer before… I suspect I would find “The Priory” deeply frustrating, but you make a good case for reading it!
It is frustrating, but it is also gripping, kind of like a train wreck. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed it. Let me know if you ever read this forgotten novel!
I’ve added “The Priory” to my reading list and am looking forward to it! Great post..
I hope you like it!
Thanks – will be adding this to books I need to read
Let me know what you think.
Interesting review of this book. You have a way with your words, which keep me wanting to read on. I smiled when I seen you added Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex and Feminine Mystique in your list. I have a picture of Virginia Woolf hanging in my office. Have you watched the movie The Hours? What is interesting to understand about women and feminism is, yes it has been around for many many years, however, not a lot of people have indulged in the literary works of feminism. Nonetheless, the freedom that we have now compared to the freedom women in the 1400s wanted is highly grateful, but somehow we still struggle with many ways of objectification and what a women should be through the patriarchs lens.
Yes, I have seen The Hours. I too have a picture of Virgina Woolf displayed in my home. I admire her. Any feminist works you would add to my list?
Well there is Mary Daly. Very controversial feminist however she has some good articles. She has the intergalactic Wickedary of the English language. But she digs deep into religion and is a radical feminist. She makes great points. Bell hooks, ain’t I a woman: black women and feminism, focusses a lot on the oppressions of the African American woman. Rosemarie Tongs book feminist thought which focuses on many types of feminism and critiques of different feminists such as Betty Friedan, Mary daly, Audrey lorde etc. Elizabeth cady Stanton which I’m sure you heard of her. She created the women’s version of the bible. However I’m more into her writing about freedom and right to vote such as History of woman suffrage. Susan B Anthony wrote it with her. Sorry if I’m not detailed, but I hope you check out some of the authors writings or books.
Its nice to read about someone’s opinions on feminism, who doesn’t go overboard and put the feminist opinion in a bad light. Thank you. 🙂
Feminists get a bad rap. However, I think by my definition of feminism (there are many types), which is that women deserve equal pay for equal work, that men and women should be equally involved in housework and child rearing, that women are just as smart and capable as men, and so on with “equality” as the main focus, most people actually could be considered “feminists.”
I agree. The word feminist freaks people out. They think of crazy lesbians burning bras. But that’s definitely not true. I always say if you believe a woman should be equal and not allow herself to be objectified and taken as an incompetent woman in comparison to man then consider yourself a feminist. 🙂
I couldn’t agree more. 🙂
As a writer and avid reader myself, I’m constantly in pursuit of good reads (even when my bookshelves..yes plural.. are stuffed with books I’ve yet to open).
Though my curiosity digs slightly deeper than that…I always want to know how or where someone stumbles upon the book they are so ardently recommending.
So, if you don’t mind me asking: how did you find out about the Priory? Was it simply the assignment for your thesis or did you come up with it on your own?
I found it through Persephone Books based in London. I wanted to focus on a forgotten female author for my thesis, so I began looking into that and found that Persephone is reprinting just such books.
Huh. Well, that’s quite a unique cause, I’d say. Do you read any creative or narrative non-fiction? Sounds like something that might interest you…considering you discovered your thesis on (might I say) investigative grounds.
I’m an aspiring journalist, thus I find your discovery quite worthy of a story on its own.
Yes, creative non-fiction does interest me. As to investigative studies, I am planning something similar for my dissertation. We’ll see what happens, but I do enjoy historical research grounded in theory.
Well then if you haven’t read him, Tom Wolfe would be a great read for you. “Hooking Up” is a wonderfully rendered tale of the teenage mores and how people have changed regarding the development of new technologies. I’d highly recommend it, even for a quick skim…the story about the Silicon Valley is especially interesting. Lots of talk about autonomy and such.
I loved that you put a photo of your worn, and much loved, book. I often find myself perusing my old copies and rereading my notes, agreeing with some of my ideas (and disagreeing with others!). The way you followed your intellectual instinct through the thesis writing process, makes me think that you might do this too. Interesting post!
Yes, my worn, marked books are my journals. They remind me of who I was when I read it. It is funny how my thoughts and reactions change to the same texts as I change and age. Thanks for reading!
I love it that you love old books! Thanks for sharing your picks.
You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the suggestions! I feel like people have forgotten about feminism, or when they do think about it, it’s rarely in a positive context. I was in a Spanish-American literature class in the fall, and when we covered feminist writers, the teacher asked who in the room considered themselves a feminist. I was the only one. What a shame…clearly no one’s heard of third wave feminism, which is described briefly in one of the selections from Estelle B. Freedman’s Essential Feminist Reader, another excellent read for anyone learning about the history of feminism. Great post!
I’ve been trying to get my hands on The Essential Feminist Reader for a while now. I think I may have to break down and buy it, rather than swapping for it or finding it used. My library has it, but I want to mark it all up! Good points on feminism. I am totally with you!