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