Monday, July 21, 2008

The Rector's Daughter

Sometimes it seems that spinsters dominated the women’s literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Viragos particularly published women's classics about the lives of spinsters, while the "gentler" Persephones are often women’s “family” novels. (Not always, though.) Viragos have had a determined spinster slant since their beginning 30 years ago: In 1984 they published an original papterback by Sybil Oldfield, The Spinsters of this Parish, partially about F. M. Mayor.

F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1925) is a spinster lit masterpiece. The women characters are saddish and in part shaped by their environment: Mayor's vivid writing rather Gothically potrays Dedmayne, the damp and moldering village where Mary, chief spinster, has lived her whole life (one of Mary's favorite writers, Trollope, wouldn't have been caught dead in Dedmayne: he preferred less moldy hamlets, preferably peopled by aristocrats). Mary, rather exhaustingly intimidated by her father, has only occasionally left home.

Mayor writes: “Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties...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 any one to stop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something picturesque....”

The village is not picturesque; neither is Mary. She prefers winter to any other season. She doesn't like the hyperbole of flowers. Rain and black trees suit her best. She has no outlet for her energy. After her mentally iill sister, Ruth, is released from an asylum, Mary cares for her until she dies of a stroke. Her father doesn't grieve. The servants love and coddle Mary.

Mary is not a desperate character: after Ruth's death, she travels with an aunt and stays at a boarding school where the women conspire to help her change her appearance and hope she’ll catch a man. Mary doesn’t mind dowdy clothes and unfortunately the only man in the boarding house doesn’t consider proposing to her (though she doesn’t particularly like him and he has been rejected by all other female society there).

Her friends begin to reappear in her life,. This is not a drab, hopeless book. Mayor is not too serious--she writes with humor of a woman whose life “went round in its accustomed round; Advent Sunday, Carols, the Christmas treat, Ash Wednesday, and a hope that people will come to Church this Lent (never realized);...summer treats; garden- and tennis-parties....”

The novel is not without a love interest. But when Mary is invited to mix with the upper class, a small tragedy happens. Her relationships are unbalanced. Horse-and-hunt women with nicknames like "Jim-Jam" turn her world upside down. Kathy, a beautiful woman who doesn't notice Mary, particularly hurts her.

There is much more to this than plot, of course. Mayor's direct narrative does not get lost in sentiment. This is a startling book, never softening Mary's difficulties, and the character, unlike Barbara Pym's single women, is penniless. That of course makes all the difference. Without money, how can these women live? Pym's women can work.

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