It’s difficult to read a Persephone book and not view it through a 21st century lens. As I read The Priory I kept thinking things like “The reason Penelope has to make this choice is because she has no education, so no other options are available to her” and “if Christine had her own money she wouldn’t have to leave her baby with her sister.” Of course these reasons are still the reasons if you know what I mean – I am not ascribing motivations inaccurately. But I wonder if I were reading this book in the late 1930’s (when it was originally published) whether I would be as sensitive to them, or would feel as bothered by them.
This is a story of a family of mostly women: two sisters, their aunt and their stepmother; also various women servants. The few male characters are ineffectual and mostly just cause problems for the women. Major Marwood, the father, is a retired army man. His estate is mortgaged, he owes thousands of pounds to his creditors, his house is crumbling around him, yet he stages exorbitant cricket tournaments each summer that put him further and further into debt. The women in his family see his foolish ways but are powerless to stop him. His daughters, Penelope and Christine, are forced to marry men to whom they are ill-suited, and in the case of Christine, whom she barely knows, to escape from the poverty and to have some opportunity for a life. His second wife Anthea sequesters herself in the nursery with her young twins and refuses to acknowledge the state of their finances. She willfully ignores all evidence of it, and forges ahead with an expensive nursemaid and redecorating projects that compound the family’s financial woes. The tragedy of the story is that all three women (and several other women characters also) are intelligent, resourceful, creative people who are given no education and no opportunities to be of any use to society. Anthea’s anger is most clearly drawn through her passive aggressive money battles with the major, but the daughters too (especially Penelope) seethe with suppressed rage.
As with every other Persephone book I’ve read, this book is filled with tiny telling moments that add up to a perfectly rendered world. I do have one small complaint: it’s very long, around 500 pages. I got about 9/10ths of the way through and ran out of gas. (Astute observers of my Shelfari sidebar will know that it’s been stuck there for weeks.) I finally finished it last night.
(Book 17, 2008)