THE OLD PRIORY by Norah Lofts
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Three generations of madness, illegitimacy, and other good family-curse fun--as veteran Lofts, with her customary sharp prose and unsentimental grittiness, uses five narrators to fill in the story of the Old Priory estate, circa 1590-1640. Narrator #l is family-founder Arthur Tresize, who tells the odd tale of how--as a young sailor on leave--he got the money to buy the haunted Old Priory farmland in Suffolk and build a house there: handsome, chestnut-haired Arthur was secretly hired to impregnate a recently widowed noblewoman in desperate need of an heir! (He falls in love with her but never learns her name.) Then it's on to the narrative of Arthur's daughter Lettice, who details: Arthur's bad luck with wives (Lettice's mother dies, one stepmother runs off, another is locked up after going mad); the birth of her beloved half-brother Simon; her own seduction by Simon's tutor, resulting in pregnancy and banishment to a grimly Jacobean home for unwed mums; her escape, the al fresco childbirth, and her return home with this ""adopted"" baby--only to find her father dead of heat-stroke. So narrator #3 is Lettice's young son Alan--who at long last learns the secret of his birth and tries to help his mother when foul, simple Simon (heir to the whole Priory estate) manages to turn a thriving farm into a wasteland. Eventually, in fact, Lettice and Alan both decide that Simon must be murdered--but the demise only brings more woe: Simon has left everything to his favorite woman of ill repute, who takes over half of the house while Lettice lives, fuming, in the other half. (Narrator #4 is the tart's junior-tart daughter, with the story of how she tore herself away from prostitution only to find herself not much happier in marriage.) And finally comes Arabella Shawcross, daughter of a wealthy man who wants to buy the Old Priory: she is rejected in romance by a chestnut-haired lordling (yes, the grandson of Arthur Tresize's mystery noblewoman!) but finds love with the lordling's look-alike--Alan of the Old Priory. Appealing characters, quick-paced action, brisk period details (farming, glove-making) with no forsooth-y period frills: another Lofts winner, though not occultish enough for those who like her best when she's a-haunting.

Pub Date: March 12th, 1982
Publisher: Doubleday