F.M Mayor had a wonderful ability to capture the essence of a relationship or character in a few words:
“The ladies were very happy together. Isabel carried the wraps, and was contradicted whenever Mrs Herbert wanted to contradict.”
“…but one only had to look at Mildred’s clear eyes and round, rosy cheeks to see that she was a lay nun, a wholesome, though not very luscious apple.”
And, one of the most loaded sentences I can remember having read recently: “Mary and Aunt Lottie removed to their suburb.”
In “The Rector’s Daughter”, Mayor conjured an exquisitely sad story of truncated love, and depicted with grace and suppressed vitality the lot of a woman in the years just before emancipation. Mayor herself lived during that strange, liminal time when Victorian England was giving way to the liberated 20s – the daughter of a clergyman, she was one of the few women to study at Cambridge in the late 1800s before ultimately becoming a writer of considerable talent.
In “The Rector’s Daughter”, Mayor tells the story of Mary Jocelyn, the thirty-five year old, plain, unmarried daughter of the Canon of Dedmayne. Mary has lived a life of quiet self-sacrifice; first caring for her disabled sister and later dedicating herself thanklessly to her father’s work and the running of the church. Rather like Jane Eyre, a vein of creative energy and deep emotion runs through her, and she occasionally tries her hand at writing essays and poetry before setting these emotional impulses aside as evidence of mental instability. When Robert Herbert – a fellow clergyman and son of Canon Dedmayne’s greatest friend – comes to the area, Mary experiences love for the first time in her life and something approaching hope. For a brief spell she allows herself to believe that she may marry and have children of her own, but at the last moment Mr Herbert meets the young, beautiful and mercurial Kathy, and chooses her instead.
“Reader, I married him.” That most famous of lines thrills the heart of any romantic, as the plain, fiercely intelligent and loyal Jane Eyre is rewarded by Charlotte Bronte with the love of the exquisite Mr Rochester. In F.M Mayor’s story, set fifty or so years later but in such a similarly limited rural world, Mary finds her soul-mate but not a husband. Her story is made up of a series of disasters and sacrifices: the cold father whose affection she seems unable to win; the lover who taunts her with impassioned declarations and subsequent indifference; Kathy’s temporary friendship; and the tantalizing hope of a literary career which never really moves beyond stuttered promises of opportunity. As much as I was reminded of Charlotte Bronte, I also found myself recalling John Williams’ “Stoner” – another tale of thwarted potential and wasted love:
He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”
It is a desperately sad story, and yet, for some reason, never depressing. In part, I think, because there is a remarkable stoicism and even a dry sort of humour in the novel. Mary never truly feels what it is to be loved with faithful constancy, but she has the distinction of being a truly kind, intelligent woman who feels with a remarkable depth. That, in a way, is enough. Though her opportunities for articulating the reality of her inner-life are few, her life is not an arid one. On the contrary – you get the sense that her emotional reality has been far richer than that of the London intellectuals she encounters in one painful scene (“The point, I feel sure, is,” said Mr Worsley, crushing levity, “that whether one loves or hates, or is faithful or unfaithful, life is always a comedy and always a pageant.“) In the end, Robert Herbert’s posthumous affection even grants Mary a kind of apotheosis: “…for no photograph, no speaking portrait, could have captured what he loved so much in her – that depth and intensity of feeling which rarely showed itself in her face, or even in her words. He could find it in his country’s winds, which she had relished in every part of her.” So often, in literature and in life, we are defined by our relationships – our parents, spouses, friends and children. Mary, however, through the pain of Robert’s rejection, finds something more noble and distinct. She is an individual – not by choice, perhaps, but there is something remarkable in her quiet strength all the same. In another story, written by another author, she may have been Mrs Rochester. In this world, though, she remains as Miss Jocelyn – and finds something heroic in her ability to flourish in suburbia, cherishing her brief experience of love and never drowning in self-pity. No Juliet-esque self-immolation here – instead, Mary ploughs on in Croydon.
There is also nothing heavy-handed in the novel. Mayor portrays the younger generation with the kind of acuity that punctuates Waugh’s novels, yet Kathy is no monster and Robert Herbert, though perhaps weak, is not a villain. It is simply a sad story of crossed-wires and complicated relationships but no-one is really to blame – it is just life, laid bare in all its confusion. In one of my earliest tutorials at Cambridge, when I had been expounding at tedious length and with teenage assuredness about the glory of eternal love, my supervisor gently informed me that I needed to learn to value the ephemeral. I think I have since, but I wish I had read this story then. Mary’s experience of love is no less precious for being fleeting – in a way it is even more vivid for existing in a vacuum. This is a beautiful novel – and, as has been the way this year, I have Susan Hill to thank for it.