Monday, December 7, 2009

Thank Susan Hill

Pretending to Christmas shop on Sunday I found myself (and what a surprise this will be) in a bookshop looking for something for myself. What I wanted after reading some excellent reviews for it (here and here) was Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ from Virago press, frustratingly it was not to be had in town, and I’m not prepared to deal with postal deliveries in December; not after a 40 min wait in the cold at the sorting office on Saturday, and under no circumstances if it involves courier firms, so amazon is out until January. The post office people where at least working hard and trying to be helpful, but this is all another story – moving back to the point; I did see one exciting book hiding amongst all the seasonal crap/ celebrity biographies that we’re meant to want at this time of year.

The book in question was F.M Mayor’s ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ and I’m assuming it’s available in all good bookshops thanks to Susan Hill’s championship in both in ‘Howards End Is On The Landing’ and on Radio 4’s Open Book programme. I know a few people have already written about 'The Rector's Daughter' this year which is one of the reasons I’ve held off until now, but as she’s actually on the shelves waiting to become someone’s impulse purchase I’m going to have my say.

This really and truly is a neglected classic, criminally neglected considering the quality of the writing. The plot is basically the life of Mary Jocelyn; a good and dutiful daughter who works hard in her father’s parish and who almost finds fulfilment. Mayor does the disappointed, disappointing, woman like no other writer I’ve yet discovered. Mary is like so many of us; not especially attractive or brilliant or talented though she is loyal, dutiful and passionate. She lacks confidence and worldliness and tragically, because she deserves love, she fails to marry her man who is carried off by a most unsuitable beauty at the last moment.

If nothing seems to be very satisfactory for Mary – a thwarted love affair, a difficult relationship with her father, forced into unwelcome intimacy with her rival, and finally eviction from the home and community she loves when she loses her father, the really remarkable thing about this book is the way Mayor snatches some sort of victory for her heroine from these unpromising circumstances. Whatever else happens to her Mary at least gets to love with real passion, and to know for a moment she’s loved back. It would be easy to write this off as an empty thing – is it really better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Mayor’s answer is yes.

There must have been many Mary’s in the mid twenties when this book was written; impoverished gentlewomen with few options, from desperately sheltered backgrounds which gave them no preparation for the world they found themselves in. There are still plenty of Mary’s now. Women who want a chance to love and be loved but end up living solitary lives warding off the pity of more successfully coupled up acquaintance.

That’s only half the story though, because there is also the father daughter relationship between Mary and Cannon Jocelyn. Once more on the surface it’s a deeply unsatisfactory relationship. Cannon Jocelyn is initially incapable of expressing affection for any of his children, he’s disappointed by the distance of his son’s and somewhat indifferent towards his surviving daughter; without malice or intention he destroys her confidence in her abilities and femininity and it’s heartbreaking – but as the book progresses it becomes clear that he does cared deeply for her however hard that is for him to express, and she does come to understand that. For me it’s this relationship in all it’s finally drawn and nuanced detail that makes the book remarkable. It’s so utterly true to life that I found it almost unbearably moving and all too recognizable.

F.M Mayor is a remarkable writer, I wish I could do more justice to her, but she’s far too complex and subtle for me to easily pin down. I won’t pretend that ‘The Rector’s Daughter’ is a cheerful or even comfortable read, but it’s very rewarding and deserves the widest possible audience. For anybody reading this who hasn’t yet sought it out, please, please do because whatever reaction you have to it, I can’t imagine it will be disappointment.


  1. I hadn't previously heard of The Rector's Daughter, but I will definitely be on the look for it now.

  2. I think this is wonderful, and I'm glad that Susan Hill has brought it back to the consciousness.

    Have you read any other FM Mayor?

  3. This sounds really good. Thanks to you (okay and begrudgingly to Susan Hill) for pointing it out.

  4. Thomas, it's a brilliant book, and Mayor is a brilliant writer, I think penguin modern classics also published it so it should be easy to find, and is absolutly worth a look.

    Verity, I've read all 3 Mayor novels, and the short story in the Virago ghost stories collection. 'The Squire's Daughter' is also excellent, and I wish there was more to come. I can't understand why she's so relatively unknown.