She saw for the first time that the history of Saunby was a sad one. It had been diverted from its great purpose to a little one. It had been built for the service of God and the people; all people, but especially the poor.
“And now it serves only us,” she thought.
Christine is the eldest daughter of the Marwood family, owners of what was once a great priory that served the community but is now a crumbling estate, owned by a crumbling family. As the 1939 novel by Dorothy Whipple opens, Christine and her sister Penelope live in the great house with their eccentric aunt Victoria and their distant father, Major Marwood. They are perfectly happy with their situation. The two girls are simultaneously spoiled and neglected—they want for nothing, but their father doesn’t bother with them much.
But the family is thrown into a state when the Major proposes to Anthea, a younger woman compared to him, but a woman coming into middle age and thrilled to finally have a chance at a home and family of her own. Although things do not turn out as Anthea hoped, she takes charge just enough to cause the previously contended Marwood girls to become discontented and ready to look elsewhere for happiness.
For much of this book, my loyalties among these characters were divided. I couldn’t be sure who to like and whose fate to care about. Anthea, for example, makes a lot of sensible choices, and I was totally on her side for most of them, even though I could see how she would come across as too cavalier to the Marwoods who were so stuck in their ways. But then she lets the self-righteous Nurse Pye guide her in everything, and it goes too far, especially when it comes to dealing with a misguided romance among the servants. Yet sometimes Nurse Pye is absolutely right, and she is absolutely the best person to have around to take care of ailing babies.
So, it’s complicated. Because people are complicated.
By the midpoint of the book, the story settles on Christine, and it’s evident that she is the primary hero of the story. It’s her path to self-discovery that will drive the story to its resolution. And a lot of her path involves learning to see past others’ mistakes and to give and receive the love that is offered, even when it doesn’t live up to expectations.
I liked this book quite a lot more than I did Someone at a Distance, which I found extremely enjoyable until the midpoint, when everyone seemed to revert to stereotype, a disappointment given how skillful the characterizations were early on. But even with that disappointment, I could see that Whipple was a good writer, so I’m glad I tried again.
An interesting historical note: The book is set in the 1930s and ends with the characters celebrating that the prime minister is entering negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini, thus avoiding war. Because the book was published in 1939, Whipple wouldn’t have known what was coming, although she doesn’t rule out the possibility that the peace is only temporary. For today’s readers, knowledge of history casts a shadow over the book’s ending, but I appreciate being put right into the time with characters and an author who can’t see ahead. It’s much harder to get that perspective from historical fiction (although historical fiction has its own pleasures).