The Rector’s Daughter

by F M Mayor

This book was recommended to me by Pat Ranson, who had rediscovered it among the books she had kept since her youth (it has her maiden name written in the fly leaf) and highly recommended it.

I found the language somewhat hard-going to start with.  The novel was written in 1924 and it shows its age.  True, the author uses her characters’ language to help us understand them.  Kathy and her ‘set’ use the fashionable slang of the time, which comes across as disrespectful and at times shocking (she is free with expletives and mild swearwords). Mary’s father, the rector of the title, on the other hand, is very careful and proper with his language.  He speaks little with Mary, and is as undemonstrative as Kathy is open and engaging.

The book’s success lies in its well-developed, beautifully understood characters.  The unfulfilled love that Mary and Mr Herbert have for each other is desperately sad, but entirely believable, as each of them gets locked into a life that is not what they would have wished for.  In their own ways, each of them manages to live a fulfilling and fulfilled life; though it is with some relief that we see Mary die not long after her fortieth birthday, having seen and felt her trepidation at the prospect of living into her eighties, as her father did.

Even the minor characters, such as Kathy’s friends and Mary’s friend Dora and her family, are well-drawn and easy to imagine – and this is not because they are stereotypes.

I don’t think I would have persevered with this book if not from loyalty to Pat, who lent me the book.  But I am so glad that I did.  This book really moved me, and gave me a new insight into the power of fiction to help readers to better understand the range of human emotion, by showing a truthful glimpse into the lives of others.

[Footnote: Flora Macdonald Mayor was herself the daughter of a rector and scholar.  She was born in 1872.  She became engaged but her fiancé died, and she never married. She died aged 59.  Juliet Stevenson has read the novel for BBC Radio 4’s Neglected Classics season, but the recording is unavailable on the internet at the time of writing.]

3 October 2017

Having recommended this book for our book club, I needed to read it again and re-familiarise myself with it.  I’m not sure that I enjoyed it as much this time round.  I became increasingly frustrated with Mary, who seems incapable of letting go of her infatuation with Mr Herbert even after she has embraced her new spinsterly life.

What did ring true was the depiction of Mary’s grieving process after the death of her father.  And Mayor includes many delightful observations about human nature which are satisfying to read:

“It may be because shy people have suffered so much from being left out that they, above all others, make their guests feel at home.”

“To have the hand pressed in an overflow of enthusiasm for some one else is specially uncomplimentary.”

(describing Mrs Herbert) “If Kathy had probed her, Mrs Herbert would only have repeated it was a pity . The ladies of her generation were incapable of discussion . They were as inarticulate as the uneducated, though often almost erudite.”

“The English doctors got rid of patients to the Riviera, the Riviera doctors sent the poor shuttlecocks back to England.”

If I could sum up the impression this book leaves me with, it is: gently understanding, with humour and compassion.