This is an interesting book and writer, a bit off the track of the Gender of Modernism mainstream, but a very solid read for anyone who enjoys Virago Modern Classics (1987) or, better yet, good books published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, this one in 1924. It has many of the same lines as To the Lighthouse, but without any of the modernist abstractions and ellipses. So it could well be one of the many books that must have been prompting Woolf to do her own, unique version of how a Victorian family functioned in the 19th century past, and its entry into the 20th century. It has more Edwardian/Georgian humor and character and vitality than one finds in Woolf’s work, which is both incisive and ponderous, but this is not a light or superficial work despite its clear and transparent style. TRD is the story of an intellectual woman in middle age, tracking her isolation and late blooming romantic attachment, and it’s fascinating to read alongside May Sinclair, though it has different goals and details and shades of character.
It’s a strong Father-Daughter story, especially in its first half. Think Mr. Ramsay and his dutiful, adult daughter, the two of them isolated in a rectory, providing philosophical and scholarly substance to a rural village, as well as solace to churchgoers. Excuse me if I hop on my hobby horse and relate elements of this story to Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf, and Mr. Ramsay and To the Lighthouse, but as you must know that’s my thing, more or less, and this book creates a powerful pull in that direction. I started reading the introduction to the book right after I finisihed, but I put it aside after the first page, not wanting to muddle my own response with background and biographical notes on Flora Mayor. but that doesn’t mean I won’t make connections to the book’s publisher and her 1927 classic, which was in its formative stages when The Rector’s Daughter appeared.
Rector Jocelyn is probably more like Leslie Stephen in many ways than Mr. Ramsay, and it is a clearer portrait of the aging Victorian intellectual. The character is based on Mayor’s own father, Joseph Mayor, a professor of Physics and Moral Philosophy at Kings College, University of London. Digging in and discovering the details, differences and relationships promises to be extremely interesting, but I’ll assess it from the outside first, as a Stephen student. The biggest tie is an elaborate explanation of the superiority of Cambridge over Oxford, which was a strong characteristic of the Strachey-Stephen (G.E. Moore) Bloomsbury group. The flow of literary studies into philosophy, or vice versa, is also the same. But perhaps the best tie is Canon Jocelyn’s youthful mountaineering expeditions and friendships, all deep in the past now. These are only mentioned briefly, as Mary Jocelyn is detached from her father’s youth, and he has barricaded himself behind his scholarship and reserve.
Another tie is a darker and more obscure one. But why not mention it? When the Rector’s Daughter begins Mary Jocelyn is in her 20s, it seems. Her mother has been dead for some time, and her older brothers have moved to America. The brothers are barely mentioned, and they seem to have been overwhelmed by their father’s dominating presence. Mary cares for a younger, mentally-disabled sister, Ruth, and this keeps her close to her father and Dedmayne Rectory. Flora Mayor had a close and complicated relationship with her twin sister, Alice, who was quiet and retiring, while F.M. read history at Cambridge at a rather early date, and was an actress for a time. Mary Jocelyn may well be an amalgam of Flora and her twin. But Mary’s sister Ruth reminds me of Leslie Stephen and Minny Thackeray’s mentally disabled daughter Laura, who was cared for outside of the Stephen family after Minny’s death. And thus Canon Jocelyn has a life that might have been like Leslie Stephen’s if Stephen had not renounced his religious orders, and if Minny Thackeray had lived another ten years or more. It’s weird and a little close, and it must have been very odd for Woolf. But this is just a very good book, and my associations are even more bizarre and less interesting than usual. I suppose that if anything it shows that Woolf’s experience as a 20th century woman with an intellectual Victorian father is hardly unique, and at the same time it makes her work and the level of her accomplishment that much more singular and impressive.
But this is all a lengthy aside and bit of unnecessary background and there is so much in this book on its own that it’s silly to pursue the tangent. The opening of the novel establishes the quiet but overwhelming domination of the father, his scholarly attainments, value system, and patriarchal prerogatives. His intellectual grandeur doesn’t leave much of a life for his intelligent, thoughtful daughter Mary, who can’t measure up to his lofty scholarly concerns, and she has had little encouragement to do so. Canon Jocelyn doesn’t really care that she does, as his decades of distraction and self-absorption in mental refinement makes it impossible for him to communicate even the simplest emotional regard and attachment to his daughter, despite his complete dependence on her. This is examined and pursued in painstaking detail by the author and the extended subtlety of it is a remarkable contrast to Woolf’s ironies and abstractions.
The story begins with Mary, just when she seemed most isolated, coming to life with the arrival of a highly suitable mate, the clerical son of one of her father’s old colleagues. Things move swiftly, Mr. Herbert and Mary form a a close, easy, and obvious bond, and their happiness seems assured about halfway through the book, and maybe earlier–much too soon, obviously. This feels like a page taken from the George Eliot approach, put Dorothea Brooke and Lydgate close together, perfect for each other, but always apart, and see how things work out. The twist here, a very hard one from Mary’s point of view, is that the sober, intellectual Herbert is a middle-aged man whose head is turned by youth and beauty, despite even his own best intentions. What’s interesting about this part of the story is that it introduces the younger generation into the book, making it a study, really, of three distinct age groups and their orientations during the Edwardian-Georgian period. Canon Jocelyn is an old guard late Victorian, Mary and Mr. Herbert were quiet young adults in the 80s and 90s, one assumes, and now the century has turned and people in their 20s are different than they used to be. They head off to the Riviera, speak differently and use lots of slang, and don’t seem to care about much. There is comedy and energy behind this part of the story, centered in Mary’s foil Kathy and her friend Lesbia, and it becomes a modern book with very current characters. But it remains thoughtful even as it shows the swift changes in society, and Canon Jocelyn’s old age provides a steady link to the past.
I’m writing this conclusion after reading May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier, which is a remarkably similar book. Calling them intellectual spinster lit is sexist shorthand and unfair, a reductive approach to careful, sustained exploration of female identity and social status and opportunity, with the addition of energetic minds and consciousness, and the subtraction of romantic “solutions” and entanglements. It’s an effort for a heroine to live with herself and not be defined by a relationship with a man. Sinclair goes further than Mayor does, and Mary Olivier has the feel of a significant modernist text, and it, or at least she, Sinclair herself, maintains a minor reputation that should definitely be more substantial. I’m working on that vein. But in many ways I’m more interested in this even more obscure and neglected text and author. comparison to Sinclair points to Mayor’s seriousness and the ambition of her story and the way she tells it. And I wonder if The Rector’s Daughter isn’t the true neglected gem, especially for our own tastes and time. Strong recommendation, for an intriguing, highly readable and engaging, out of the way text. F.M. Mayor also wrote another novel, The Squire’s Daughter, which I look forward to reading.