‘The Rector’s Daughter – A Classic Story About Love and Loss
I recently finished reading FM Mayor’s classic novel – ‘The Rector’s Daughter’, recently published by Persephone Books.
It was such a poignant read that it is taking me a few days to mentally recover from reading about poor Mary’s life. Recover from reading about the depths and constancy of her love, devotion and emotions. Her deep-rooted devotion to her Father and the man that she loved with her heart and soul.
The ‘Rector’s Daughter’ is about Mary Jocelyn’s life. She is, as stated in the title of the novel – the current Rector of Dedmayne’s daughter. Dedmayne, a rural backwater in the eastern counties of England, is a place where nothing much ever happens. The Rector, is a stern, scholarly, authoritative figure – often appearing to live for only himself, with little care to the emotional needs and wants of his middle aged daughter. The house is a solitary one. In it reside the old Rector and his daughter Mary and an invalid sister – Ruth, whom Mary nurses with great devotion. The grown up sons have all flown far from the family nest – trying to flee from the pervading sense of academia and religiosity that the Rector emanates. It is left to Mary to look after her feeble needy sister and her stern father – and she does these things with all her heart. Nevertheless, there are times when Mary longs for love and children and a home and life of her own. She experiences moments of resentment – when she realises she has not been given the freedom to seek out a life partner and lead a life outside of the Rectory.
Mary is thirty five years old when she meets the love of her life – a scholarly man, similar in this aspect to her Father – a man called Robert Herbert who becomes a close friend of the family. With Robert, Mary discovers an intelligent mind, a passion for reading and their friendship gradually develops into a very deep love – which consumes Mary in ways, she had not thought previously possible. As with all other things in life, Mary loves Robert passionately and in her mind contemplates a life with him, filled with love and light and family. But what happens to Mary is a fate too cruel to behold and as a reader we share Mary’s feelings of dismay and disappointment.
Apart from the central plot, there were many details of the story that I enjoyed. Most of all the descriptions of the quiet life that Mary led – not completely devoid of pleasure. The books she read and her enjoyment of the passing of the seasons. There’s a particular paragraph that describes the books Mary enjoyed :
“Mary liked the long Dedmayne winter evenings. In October, as regularly as the leaves fell, she began the winter habit of reading her favourite novels for an hour before dinner, finding in Trollope, Miss Yonge, Miss Austen, and Mrs Gaskell friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness.”
Mary had a firm, lifelong friendship with her childhood friend Dora – a spinster like herself and it was Dora who visited Mary, especially in times of need and loneliness. Interspersed throughout the novel are descriptions of the small pleasures in living in the countryside and the appreciation of nature and the turning of the seasons.
“A robin flew up to greet them; a toad crawled forth and squatted on the path, turning his bright eyes to Mary while she talked to him… Mary and Dora stopped to look through the gap in the hedge at the view beyond, quiet, domestic, English scenery – a pond, meadows, and elm trees. These are the solace of the lonely in the country.”
The reason why I think that the narrative of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is so powerful is perhaps due to the fact that the reader deeply sympathises with poor Mary’s plight. To discuss her life and plight would reveal too many aspects of the plot – so it is difficult to discuss in great detail.
The feeling of pity for Mary is completely overpowering. Even though Mary never complained of her lot in life and never demanded pity. This characteristic of Mary’s personality, for me, added greatly to the poignancy of the book.
I will end with these lines :
“Such was Mary’s life. As the years passed on, the invalid’s room became more and more her world. Sometimes she felt the neighbourhood, the village, even her father, becoming like shadows. In the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.”
Persephone Books kindly sent me a press copy of ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ for review, but as always, all opinions are my own.