Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Rector's Daughter - F.M. Mayor

There are a few books which I expect to love, end up not loving, and then wonder why.  I lean back in my chair, eye the novel sternly, and ask myself (and it) what went wrong.  Was it timing?  Would a re-read make me fall in love?  Have I recently read something else which does the same sort of thing, but better?  That's a sure-fire way to leave me unimpressed.  Or is the book simply not as good as everyone tells me?

Well, recently a novel joined the ranks of Hotel du Lac, Gaudy Night, and A Passage to India.  All books which have their passionate fans, and (with me) a somewhat underwhelmed reader.  Well, The Rector's Daughter, I certainly didn't hate you.  I liked you rather more than the above trio of disappointments.  But nor did I love you in the way that I anticipated I would, based on reviews by Rachel and Harriet.  So I have stalled writing about this novel... I finished it right at the beginning of 2012, and yet... what to say?  How to write about it properly - justifying my lack of adoration for this much-adored title, but not only that: this was one of those novels which gave me no heads-up on how I would structure a review.  But... well, I'll try.


The Rector's Daughter (1924) concerns the life and ill-fated love of Mary Jocelyn, the rector's daughter in question.  She is motherless, and lives a life of obedient graciousness towards her father - who is deeply intellectual, but not able to show his love for his daughter.  I think Mary was supposed to be in the mold of silently passionate women, having to be content with their lot.  A bit like Jane Eyre, perhaps... but then I have always thought Jane Eyre a little overrated.  Here she is:
His daughter Mary was a decline.  Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early.  Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair.  She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses.  She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness.  It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns.
Mary has one great chance at love, with Mr. Herbert - and I do not think it gives too much away (for it is no surprise) to relate that her chance comes to nothing, and she must live with the consequences of this unlucky, ineluctable failure.  Love is one of the major themes of the novel.  That's true of a lot of novels, but in The Rector's Daughter the theme is love-out-of-reach; the journey from innocence to experience, bypassing happiness.  What horrifies Mary - and what seems to horrify F.M. Mayor too - is any sort of irreverence towards love.
One winter day when Dora Redland had come to stay with Ella, she and Mary met for a walk.  Mary suddenly started the subject.  "I wish you would tell me something about love.  I should think no one ever reached my age and knew so little, except of love in books.  Father has never mentioned love, and Aunt Lottie treated it as if it ought not to exist.  There were you and Will, but I was so young for me age I never took it in."

"What a funny thing to ask!" said Dora.  "I don't think I know much about it either.  There was one of the curates at Southsea - I never imagined he cared at all for me; I had hardly ever spoken to him.  I think some one else had refused him.  That makes them susceptible, I believe, and also the time of year and wanting to marry."  There was a mild severity, perhaps cynicism, in this speech, which astonished Mary.

"But, Dora, don't you think there is a Love 'Which alters not with Time's brief hours and days, / But bears it out even to the edge of Doom'?"

"Take care, Mary dear, you stepped right into that puddle.  Wait a minute.  Let me wipe your coat.  I am not quite sure that I understand what you were saying."
Dora is also a spinster, but less angsty.  I think I would have rather enjoyed a novel from Dora's perspective...

It is usually easy to give reasons why a book didn't work for me.  Indeed, they are few more satisfying activities than laying into a poorly written novel... but The Rector's Daughter isn't poorly written.

Perhaps my ennui can be attributed to spinster novel fatigue?  I have read quite a few recently, and have to say that May Sinclair's Life and Death of Harriett Frean attempts a similar type of novel rather more (for me) successfully.  The public debate about unmarried women between the world wars (covered fascinatingly in a chapter of Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession, and less fascinatingly in Virginia Nicholson's Singled Out) was loud and often angry; the 1920s novels dealing with this issue were written at a time when the issue was contentious, as well as potentially tragic.  Maybe I've just read too many, now?

Perhaps I found The Rector's Daughter too earnest?  I have often noted that novels others love sometimes fail with me if they are very earnest.  It kills a narrative.  And certainly there appeared to be very little humour in Mayor's novel... at least in the first half.  I was surprised, in the second half, to come across moments which would be at home in Jane Austen or E.M. Delafield's lighter work.  This passage was brilliant - it's from Miss Davey, a character (looking back) whom I remember nothing else about:
"Who can that be coming down the road?  Why, it's the pretty little girl with the dark curls we saw yesterday when the Canon took me out a little walk - your dear father.  Oh no, it's not; now she comes nearer I see it's not the little girl with the dark curls.  My sight isn't quite as good as it was.  No, she has red hair and spectacles.  Dear me, what a plain little thing.  Did you say she would be calling for the milk, dear? Or is this the little one you say helps Cook?  Oh no, not that one, only ten; no, she would be rather young.  Yes, what the girls are coming to.  You say you don't find a difficulty.  Mrs. Barkham - my new lodgings; I told you about her, poor thing, she suffers so from neuralgia - she says the girls now - fancy her last girl wearing a pendant when she was waiting.  Just a very plain brooch, no one would say a word against, costing half-a-crown or two shillings.  I've given one myself to a servant many a time.  Oh, that dear little robin - Mary, you must look - or is it a thrush?  There, it's gone.  You've missed it.  Perhaps we could see it out of the other window.  Thank you, dear; if I could have your arm.  Oh, I didn't see the footstool.  No, thank you, I didn't hurt myself in the least; only that was my rheumatic elbow."
Had I simply missed this sort of thing at the beginning, or did Mayor alter the tone?  I'm not suggesting that all novels ought to be comic novels, but without a slightly ironic eye, or dark humour, or even a slight reflective smile, I am rather lost.  This came too late in The Rector's Daughter - or at least I missed it.  Hilary wrote in her review at Vulpes Libris that "There is no distancing irony or humour – its serious tone is relentless."  I didn't find it quite relentless, but otherwise I agree with this sentence (although Hilary, as you'll see at the bottom, was overall more positive about the novel.)  I admire good comic writers so much more than I admire good poignant writers - it is so much more difficult to be comic - but maybe that is simply horses for courses.

However, as I finish a lukewarm review of The Rector's Daughter, I am chastened by the memory of my initial response to Mollie Panter-Downes's One Fine Day.  Who knows, perhaps a re-read of The Rector's Daughter would give me an equally enthusiastic second impression?


Others who got Stuck into this Book:

"This is such a brilliant book, worthy of being a classic, really, in that it so perfectly encapsulates how limited unmarried women’s lives could be before the advent of feminism" - Rachel, Book Snob

"The novel is minutely observed; there is beautiful detail about each day and the East Anglian countryside, so that although time passes in the book very slowly, it is wonderfully described." - Verity, Verity's Virago Venture

"This is a novel about how hard it is to understand other people, and how many misunderstandings and even tragedies arise from it." - Harriet, Harriet Devine's Blog

"I wouldn’t have missed it, and I do recommend it. I can understand why this novel is regarded as a hidden gem."  - Hilary, Vulpes Libres



27 comments:

  1. I've tried this a couple of times in the last two years (never making it quite to the end) but at no point have I been able to work up any enthusiasm over it. I think the main issue was my frustration with Mary, since I did appreciate Mayor's writing. Mary is, as you say, one of those 'silently passionate women', which is the kind I hate most. I have very little sympathy with the dreary dramatics of such characters - not a shock then that I don't get on well with the Brontës! It is a mindset that is just so foreign to the way I think. I may still give this another shot some day but it is comforting to know I'm not the only one who didn't fall in love with it immediately.

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    1. It sounds like, yet again, we are on the same page, Claire! There are plenty of other authors doing similar things in the period, so perhaps we should stick with them :)

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  2. I am not familiar with this book (and based on your review, am not going to run right out and buy it), but wanted to tell you that I appreciate the thoughtful pondering of why you were less than impressed, and your willingness to link some other viewpoints.

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    1. Aw, thanks! I think it's important to show other opinions, especially when I give a somewhat lukewarm review.

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  3. Find all kind of books in "Book Hunter"

    www.huntmybook.com

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  4. This has been on my Wish List for ages - it's another of the books which Staffordshire's library service does not seem to have, which is a shame, because I am intrigued by the very different responses.

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    1. I am definitely in a minority not to be jumping with joy for this book, so I wish you better luck!

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  5. Oh Simon! I'm so disappointed that you didn't love this! :(

    I think this is another One Fine Day - park it and come back to it in a year or two and you might see the magic once you've had a bit of a break from 'spinster lit' - I just made up a new genre!

    I normally hate earnestness in all forms - but I didn't find this earnest. I just found it very honest, and deeply sad. Aside from the whole issue of romance and spinsterhood etc it's also about general life disappointment in the sense of not achieving your dreams and having to deal with the consequences of that.

    F M Mayor writes beautifully and she is also quietly humorous - shown in the passage you picked out. If you can get hold of it, try The Squire's Daughter - it's out of print now but was a Virago at one point. I really enjoyed that - it's not a spinster novel like this, and is terrific at exploring the strains within family relationships. I think you'd like it. I'd offer to lend it to you but it's in a box somewhere in my mum's house unfortunately!

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    1. Lovely and impassioned, Rachel! I am sorry to disappoint (my main feeling was "Won't Rachel be CROSS.") I did read The Third Miss Symons a few years ago, and remember feelings similarly underwhelmed - not that I dislike either book, just I didn't like them as much as I thought I would. But I daresay one day I will read The Squire's Daughter anyway!

      SpinsterLit - love it! There is so much of it in this period.

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  6. Well, you know my thoughts and I am a bit disappointed but not altogether surprised, just as you were not surprised that I liked A View of the Harbour better than you did. Your review here says it all, I think -- you like irony and wit, and you don't really like serious, often sad, explorations of people's inner feelings. That's absolutely fine -- thanks goodness we don't all like the same things.

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    1. Thank goodness we don't, indeed - democracy taste would lead to a diet of Dan Brown et al!

      But I don't think I agree with your division... I love explorations of people's inner feelings, can't get enough - but when they tip from serious to earnest I am put off. But that dividing line is very subjective, of course!

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  7. I'm fairly ignorant - your review is all I know of this book - but I think I, too, would like to hear more from Dora. I like her in the passage you chose.

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    1. She was good fun - definitely more of a calm, glass half full, cheery person.

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  8. Perhaps for the time being you should leave spinster novels on the shelf?

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  9. I have no problem with you being underwhelmed by this book Simon BUT I do take issue over Gaudy Night.......!

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    1. *guilty look* I know, I know - I tried, Elaine!

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  10. How disappointing that you didn't like this one. I'd thought it sounded interesting but based on this review I might have to reconsider...

    It seems as though your reaction is similar to mine when I read The Days of Abandonment last year. It sounded great, but it was not just earnest--and it had some humorous moments--but actually depressing. I felt miserable myself after reading it. That being said, it was interesting enough. (Hmm. Maybe our experiences weren't quite so similar as I'd imagined. TDoA is what immediately leapt to mind, though.)

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    1. I haven't even heard of The Days of Abandonment - but I don't think you're selling it to me now!

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  11. I really enjoyed this book, and at times thought of it in a similar way to One Fine Day in wishing to re read. l hoped you'd talk about The Third Miss Symon's as I didn't enjoy that so much.

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    1. I remember absolutely nothing about The Third Miss S... I read it in 2006, I think, and... no, gone!

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  12. I read 'The Rector's Daughter' a long time ago now--back, I think in 1981 or 1982, and I remember loving it and being emotionally drained by one particular scene, a moment of unrequited passion (and socially impossible to express) where Mary and the man she should have married both experience a moment of revelation. I also found it an even-handed novel, in the way that the woman Herbert does marry (I think her name is Kathy) is treated by the author. It would have been all too easy for the author to treat her just as a coarse grained, upper crust horsey type, but F.M.Mayor shows her point of view.

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    1. That's very true, Sue, Kathy was certainly not a hideous, unsympathetic character. And even Mary could see it. That part was clever.

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