Proof that novels about clergymen and spinsters can be good

rdMuch as I hate to plaster my post over Tim’s diverting discussion of academic bureaucracy, it is time for me to report back on another “Neglected Classic,” which this time is F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. I had never heard of F.M. Mayor. Not that this necessarily means much, since twentieth-century literature was a blind spot of my undergraduate degree in English. In 1991, which is when I started the degree, literature published earlier that same century apparently just seemed far too new to form part of the permanent curriculum (the jury was still out on American literature also, by the way).

F.M. proved to be, when I received the book, Flora Macdonald, one of twin girls born in 1872 to, oddly enough, a clergyman. Even the little information about her life circumstances that is provided in the brief introduction to the novel makes its autobiographical underpinnings obvious. Its central character, Mary Jocelyn, is the thirty-something spinster daughter of the rector of Dedmayne parish, an unappealing village with nothing to recommend it but the damp. Canon Jocelyn, eighty two at the novel’s opening, is a stately figure. Of his daughter Mary’s physical appearance, Mayor makes it clear that it is a case of “nice eyes, shame about everything else”:

Mary was a decline. Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue .. She was dowdily dressed (7).

Reading this, it might be thought that Mayor has an unsympathetic attitude toward her protagonist, but this proves to be far from the case.

The novel charts the trajectory of an on-again, off-again romantic attachment between Mary and Mr. Herbert, recently appointed vicar of the neighboring village of Lanchester. Having fallen hard for Mary, Mr. Herbert leaves for a brief trip to compose his thoughts before proposing. When he returns, he is married to and rapturously in love with the young, beautiful, and moneyed Kathy Hollings. After only one year, Mr. Herbert realizes the intellectual and class gulf separating him from his wife, and comes once more to appreciate his bond with Mary. During a separation, while she is partying it up on the Continent with the fickle and fashionable, Kathy’s mouth is deformed in a bungled surgical operation, ultimately leading to a warm rapprochement with her husband back in England.

Although things often seem about to turn in Mary’s favor—the plot continually suggesting avenues by which Kathy might die off or leave—this is not to be that kind of novel. But neither is it, as it might sound from my description, a depressing tale of a hopeless love affair between two middle-aged people stunted by the emotional constipation of their times. Mary’s emotional clarity, in fact, is what makes her character so appealing. Surrounded by characters who either smother their feelings, like her father, or simply don’t have any deep emotions in the first place, like her friend Dora, Mary’s emotional intensity is the more refreshing and unusual. All the characters, though, are so finely-drawn as to make them utterly compelling, with the relationship between Mary and Canon Jocelyn a particularly understated tour-de-force of the novel.

What I like best about The Rector’s Daughter, though, is that Mayor is as witty as Jane Austen even while her plot is less predictable than Austen’s and her characters more well-rounded and less pretty. Mayor has a way of nailing people right on the foible—take this passage about Mary’s father:

Canon Jocelyn disliked Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army on account of their wildness and extravagance. When Mary was thirteen she had said, “I simply detest Henry IV. of France because he did not persecute any one.”

“That is a foolish way of talking,” Canon Jocelyn answered, “and I dislike your slang use of the word ‘simply.’” She had only meant Henry IV. was not in earnest, but there was a strangeness in the speech, which made Canon Jocelyn feel she might get into the hands of the Roman Catholics.

Or this of life with her Aunt Lottie:

a trickle of chatter…; making and unmakings of the mind up twenty times a day; putting on one’s things and instantly taking them off; a tracking down of the wind, the rain, the damp, the dust, the glare, the dark, the draught, the fog, the crowds, the motors (314).

Perhaps you are familiar with Mayor’s work—if so, let us know what you think. If you don’t, I can carry on thinking I am the only person in the Department to have read it. If you would like to dim the smug glow that this causes me, I can lend you the book. It’s worth a read.

–Jackie Stodnick

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