Monthly Archives: June 2024

The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor 

How were a certain class of single women to achieve the satisfaction of a life well lived? This is the central question of the novel, published by the Hogarth Press in 1924. It is not that Mary Jocelyn is unable to attract a husband. She meets at least two men who considered her suitable. But she is not beautiful or appealing in the usual way and has profound beliefs that mean she feels a duty to care for her father, a widower, while he is still alive. The man she falls in love with becomes attracted to a more lively and more beautiful young woman and she is passed over. What is her life to be?

The Rector’s Daughter

Here is the inauspicious opening paragraph of The Rector’s Daughter. It describes the place where the main character, Mary Jocelyn, lives. The reader can see that this is not a place of drama.

Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties. There were no motor buses in the days of which I write, and Cayley, the nearest station, was six miles off. Dedmayne was ashamed of this, because without a station the most interesting feature for a picture postcard was not available. There was no great house with park or garden to give character to the village. Progress had laid hold of it fifty years before, and pulled down and rebuilt the church, the Rectory, and most of the cottages. Part of Redmayne was even ugly; there was a bit of straight flat road near the church, with low dusty hedges, treeless turnip fields, and corrugated iron roofs of barns which might rank with Canada. Dedmayne was on the way to nowhere; it was not troubled by motors or bicycles, except native bicycles. The grimy ‘Blue Boar’ did not induce anyone to strop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something more picturesque. Still, being damp, it was bound to have certain charms; the trunks were mossy, and the walls mouldy. There were also those tall bowery trees in the hedgerows, and little pleasant risings in the meadows, which are so common in England one forgets to notice them. (1)

We are not to expect much from Mary’s home either. The Rector, Canon Jocelyn, is a man who is very happy to be in such a backwater as he can pursue his literary interests (Virgil and St Augustine) and be little disturbed by change. Mary, while popular with the villagers, is unlikely to cause much disturbance to her father or to Dedmayne.

Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses. She was dowdily dressed, but she had many companions in the neighbourhood, from labourers’ wives to the ladies of the big houses, to share her dowdiness. It was not observed; she was as much a part of her village as its homely hawthorns. (3)

The first 35 years of Mary’s life have produced loss and sadness, even before the narrative begins. Her brothers have emigrated (to Canada), and her older sister Ruth is described as an ‘imbecile’. Their mother died young, and Ruth was sent away. Their Aunt Lottie cared for them for some time, and then Ruth returned home requiring constant care by Mary. When Ruth dies Mary is left alone with her father.

He feels but does not express affection for his daughter, which adds to her isolation. She turns to books.

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. (17)

Canon Jocelyn is a fine figure of a Victorian father. It does not occur to him to express emotions, such as at the loss of his wife or older daughter, or to complement Mary on her attempts to distinguish herself. She begins a reading group in the parish, but it fails. She sends samples of her writing to a publisher, but they are rejected. His response is not to comfort her for her disappointments but to suggest she is less ambitious.

Mary is appreciated. She has a close relationship with the faithful Cook. While she is away with Aunt Lottie at Broadstairs, Cook reveals that her father missed her care very much, but he wasn’t able to say this. And while at Broadstairs she captures the attention of Mr. Maltby, who is regarded as a great bore by the other guests in the boarding-house. She becomes friends again with Dora, who had previously lived in the Dedmayne area. And then a new vicar comes to the parish of Lanchester, Mr Herbert, and Mary and he fall in love. They are well suited, both quiet people, serious and responsible. But Mr Herbert goes away briefly to Buxton for his health and meets and becomes engaged to the. More glamorous Kathy Hollings. 

Poor Mary, she must endure the return of Mr Herbert and all the celebrations consequent on his marriage. She had previously met and been rudely ignored by Kathy and now she had to defer to her as a bride. Following the wedding Mary devotes herself to her father, and to her friendship with Dora. It emerges that Kathy and Mr Herbert are not well suited, and Kathy’s friends enjoy rather wild outings and holidays, not appropriate for a clergyman’s wife. Kathy goes to the French Riviera with her cousin and nearly runs off with an unsuitable young man. 

While she is absent, Mr Herbert is lonely and afraid that his wife’s affections are not strong and he becomes more consumed by his mistake in passing over Mary. One day the Canon asks Mary to visit Mr Herbert on a literary matter. Emotions run high and Mary burst into tears at Mr Herbert’s unhappiness.

He put his hand on her shoulder, and said, ‘Don’t Mary, don’t cry.’ Their eyes met. Before they knew what was happening he kissed her. (172)

They both have strong reactions to the kiss, seeing it as marital transgression. And they both resolve not to see each other again. But when Kathy returns from her ill-judged stay in Monte Carlo, badly disfigured by botched dental treatment, Mary is asked by Kathy’s aunt to help her. She does so and continues to support Kathy through a pregnancy and the birth of twins. 

The Herberts are reconciled and they are grateful to Mary. After her father’s death Mary goes to live with Aunt Lottie in Croydon and is valued in her new social circle for her qualities. 

FM Mayor shows how Mary had to rely on tiny crumbs of comfort because her father or Mr Herbert were the focus of her life: a brief kind word, a voluntary interruption to routine, a saved note arranging an appointment, one kiss. This is the small fare of single women dependent upon men. She never escapes them, even after her father’s death and she has moved away from Dedmayne.

There were two people in the world she wanted – her father and Mr Herbert. Nothing besides existed for her. She had felt beyond the verge of feeling: at present she could feel no more. (294)

The Rector’s Daughter by FM Mayor, first published in 1924 and reissued by Persephone Books in 2021 with a new preface by Victoria Gray. 313pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2024

… and the winner is 

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

And you should know that the inaugural women’s prize for Non-Fiction has been won by Doppelganger by Naomi Klein.

The 6 shortlisted fiction titles in 2024:

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

Brotherless Night by V V Ganeshananthan

Restless Dolly Maunder by Kate Grenville

Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad

Soldier, Sailor by Claire Kilroy

River East, River West by Aube Rey Lescur

29 years of the Women’s Prize

Here are forty-three (that’s 43) brilliant books, all written by women, from the longlist for this year and all the previous winners. I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

The 16 long-listed books in 2024

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize

I have included links to the books I have reviewed on Bookword Blog. 

Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead (2023)

Ruth Ozeki: The Book of Form & Emptiness (2022)

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi (2021)

Maggie O’FarrellHamnet (2020)

Tayari Jones: An American Marriage (2019)

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power (2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both (2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven (2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles (2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife (2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna (2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home (2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home (2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004)

Valerie Martin: Property (2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto (2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection (2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood (1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party (1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces (1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter (1996)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Women of Colour, Writing

Persuasion in Bath

I have recently been enjoying Bath and its connections with culture, not least with books. I have visited twice this spring and begin to feel I know the city even if it is 100 miles away from where I live in Devon. In April I attended the first Persephone Festival; a couple of weeks ago I joined some members of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch in a brief tour of the city and its connections to Jane Austen and her novels. In preparation for that second visit I reread Persuasion, a novel that reaches its climax in the city.

Persuasion

Persuasion was published after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. Some commentators believe that she was too ill to complete the editing of the text before she died. Perhaps we will never know if she planned to revise it further, but we do have evidence of some revision in the cancelled chapter. In 1818 Persuasion was published in the form we have now, and some editions include that chapter.

The Bath location occurs in the final nine chapters of the novel, with 91 pages that make up 42% of the short narrative. The main character, Anne Elliot, is the daughter of a very vain, snobbish and imprudent baronet, who has had to rent out their home in Kellynch to live in Bath. Some eight years previously Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth had fallen in love and were ready to announce their engagement, when Anne was persuaded by her dead mother’s closest friend, Lady Russell, to break off the engagement. 

Anne is thoughtful, unselfish and forgiving. Neither her father nor her elder sister, Elizabeth, take any notice of Anne and her state of mind. She is not consulted about the move to Bath, for example. Her younger sister, Mary, lives close to Kellynch Hall in Uppercross and entertains a belief that she is being passed over and neglected by everyone. Anne spends a few weeks with Mary and her family before she goes to Bath, and the warmth and appreciation for Anne are a contrast to the indifference of her own father and sister. Into this situation Captain Wentworth returns, now enriched by his exploits in the navy. He is in search of a wife and seems to be drawn to Mary’s lively and sociable sisters-in-law: Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove.

There are four locations in this novel: Kellynch Hall, Uppercross, Lyme Regis and Bath. They represent four locations which increasingly connect Anne to the wider world. In Kellynch life is restricted by snobbery and unkindness; Uppercross has a close family of enthusiastic and warm people; Lyme Regis adds several friends who are involved in the navy; Bath is a place of fashion and transactional social relations. At each step she comes closer to Captain Wentworth.

On my recent trip to Bath I learned a great deal about the social situation in the fashionable city. For a start, we learned at the architectural museum that it had gone beyond its most fashionable era by the time Jane Austen was writing. But its conventions and social activities remained even if the more socially privileged were seeking other places to indulge themselves, such as the continent, seaside resorts and so forth. The function of the Lower and Upper Assembly Rooms, the regular weekly events which included concerts, theatre presentations, balls and taking the waters, all this was still in place. Jane Austen lived in Bath for a while and knew all this. Moreover, many of her readers would have known all this too.

On this tour I learned about the precision with which Jane Austen locates her characters, and how she does this for the express purpose of telling the reader something of her characters. Sir Walter, that snob, reveals the social standing of the novel’s characters, as well as his attitude through his observations on their residences. For example he has some ‘severe’ words for Anne when he discovers that she has been visiting an old school friend in Westgate-buildings.

‘Westgate-buildings!’ said he; ‘and who is Miss Anne Elliot to be visiting in Westgate-buildings? – A Mrs Smith. A widow Mrs Smith, – and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr Smiths whose names are met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly. – Upon my word. Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.’ (141-142)

Sir Walter is disgusted by the part of town in which Mrs Smith lives, by her ill health, by her common name, by her widowhood. His judgment is not sound. We learn that Mrs Smith is not old at all, but a former school friend of Anne’s and therefore about her age. 

If they did not know this already, the information that Sir Walter had accommodated himself in Camden-place would have shown readers his weakness. Jane Austen describes the choice in this way:

Sir Walter had taken a very good house in Camden-place, a lofty, dignified situation, such as becomes a man of consequence, and both he and Elizabeth were settled there, much to their satisfaction. (125)

Camden-place was a terrace at the northern end of Bath, built in 1788, on subsiding land: half the buildings collapsed in the 1880s. The baronet was not only on unstable financial grounds when he moved to Bath.

Sir Walter is ready to fawn upon his Irish relations, Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, Miss Carteret. They had taken a house in the newest part of Bath, off Great Poultney Street in Laura-place. The hotel we stayed in was in a house off Laura- Place, and very close to the delightful Henrietta Park. Lady Dalrymple’s lodgings were the most fashionable and newest among all the characters, as fitting her social status.

Sir Walter’s tenants, Admiral and Lady Croft, also come to Bath, primarily for the Admiral’s health. Again we read more about the social standing of these characters, and the snobbism of Sir Walter, through his observations.

The Crofts had placed themselves in lodgings in Gay-street, perfectly to Sir Walter’s satisfaction. He was not at all ashamed of the acquaintance. And did, in fact, think and talk a great deal more about the Admiral, than the Admiral ever thought or talked about him. (150)

Jane Austen lived for a while at 25 Gay-street. She knew what she was writing about.

The White Hart, where the Musgraves are staying, is the scene of the tense letter-writing scene, in which Captain Wentworth finally admits that he still loves Anne. Their reunion takes place soon after – where else but in Union-street?

Our walking tour of Bath took us to many places that were significant in Jane Austen’s life, and to many of the streets and meeting places mentioned in Persuasion as well as in Northanger Abbey. We also noted film locations, but my interest has been in how the writer used locations in Bath within those final 9 chapters of Persuasion.

I am indebted to Hazel Jones, the tour leader and secretary of the Jane Austen Society SouthWest Branch, for her skills in organising and leading this tour. Her knowledge of Bath and Jane Austen were impressive and invaluable. I also learned from her that before my next visit to Bath I will reread Northanger Abbey as its early chapters are set in Bath.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, first published in 1818. I used an edition published by Pan Books in 1969, now its pages are yellow at the edges and the glue is giving out on the spine. It has an inappropriate cover too. 

Related Posts on Bookword Blog

In the society of Jane Austen – December 2019

Pursuing Jane Austen – June 2019

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Jane Austen, Learning, Reading, Writing