No one could accuse F M Mayor of writing a cheerful story, but she certainly wrote a beautifully poignant one, and one I found very readable. I have been circling around this novel and The Third Miss Symons for some time, knowing already that there would be a degree of sadness to the stories of stagnant lives that Mayor appears to have particularly written about. I have Simon and Karen’s 1924 club to thank for giving me the nudge to read The Rector’s Daughter my first F M Mayor novel.
Flora M Mayor, like the woman she created in this novel was the daughter of a clergyman. However according to Janet Morgan in her introduction to this edition, Flora was nothing like her heroine Mary Jocelyn. I was rather delighted to learn that Flora seemed to have had quite a bit of spirit about her.
Mary Jocelyn is in her mid-thirties and already fading, her life has been one of quiet, respectful duty. Living in the home of her father Canon Jocelyn, Dedmayne Rectory a house as faded as its occupants, Mary is pitied by her neighbours for the reduced life she is living. Having devoted herself to her father, her recently deceased, disabled sister, and the few wants of the villagers Mary has little to look forward to. An occasional visit from her childhood friend Dora, a short holiday to Broadstairs with her Aunt, is what her life has become. Her father is an octogenarian of Victorian values, a man of cold reserve, he has no idea of Mary’s inner life, and he takes her and her continual presence for granted.
“She supposed her winter was passing as ordinary winters passed, but she was changing. She began to have longings she never had before. Her mind frequently recurred to the question which occupied Shakespeare’s heroines, ‘what is love?’
Lady Meryton is fond of poor Mary, and invites her to her garden party. Dora accompanies Mary – but it appears that although Mary is viewed as a little dull she is acceptable in a way that Dora never can be – the difference in their social standing perhaps inexplicable to us in 2015 is clear enough to Lady Meryton’s guests. One of these guests is Kathy, captivatingly beautiful, young, and blessed with all the effervescent fun and sarcastic wit of the age.
“Dora came from that section of the middle class which is so good and kind it cannot be rude. (Mary came from the section immediately above it which can)…”
When another parson, Robert Herbert comes back to the area, the son of an old friend of Canon Jocelyn; Mary’s suppressed emotional life is rocked. Mary falls in love with Mr Herbert, it would seem her feelings are returned, the two get along very well, and Mary recognises something of his feelings in the look he gives her when they are walking together. Mary allows herself briefly to dream, to wonder, and to hope. In a moment of rash confidence Mary writes to Dora of her hopes, and Dora’s reply only helps to encourage her. Nothing however is destined to be so happily straightforward for Mary.
“Each felt drawn to the other. It struck him how beautifully her eyes shone when the tears were in them. She seemed easy to talk to. As a clergyman he had sometimes been called on to console women, but he had never considered himself an adept with them; he had not liked them, shrinking in repulsion from the too patent fact how much some liked him.”
Mary is quietly shattered when Robert Herbert suddenly announces his engagement to the much younger Kathy. Hiding her devastation, she must congratulate him, and get ready to welcome his new bride to the area. Robert and Kathy are fairly obviously mismatched; they are carried away by the bliss of new love during the first year of their marriage. The focus of the novel switches a little now, in the story of the Herbert’s marriage, Mary is a visitor and friend of the couple, awkwardly positioned, when the cracks begin to appear. Kathy’s friends (of the cynical, witty bright young things type) are now frequently to be found at the Herbert’s home, Robert finds his middle-age quiet shattered by their shenanigans, they embarrass him in church while he is in the midst of preaching, and spirit Kathy away to the South of France on a holiday without her husband.
F M Mayor‘s story is that of a heart-breaking love triangle, it is also the story of the unfolding of a woman’s emotional life. Mary is ill-equipped to pursue her dreams; her life has been one of duty and Victorian values. The jazz-age is a world she is little prepared for; so often she seems like a woman out of time.
If you absolutely insist on a happy ever after, then F M Mayor might not be for you – thankfully I don’t insist on that. F M Mayor writes about quiet, unremarkable people and their quiet, disappointed, unfulfilled lives, the poignancy of this is obvious but Mayor’s writing is lovely and her characters so well drawn that I was hooked by their story.