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Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Books – The Rector’s Daughter – Flora Macdonald Mayor

Star rating – 7/10

This book was first published in 1924, but deserves a review from yours truly after featuring on Radio 4’s ‘Forgotten Classics’ series from Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme earlier this year.

It is the moving and sad tale of frustrated and unfulfilled love. It is also a telling reflection of the duty bound devotion of a daughter to her widowed father. Mary is the rector’s daughter of the title, who lives alone with her father after the death of her mother when she is little girl, and later the death of her only sister. Even as a child Mary finds little solace in human relationships, her father retreating into his academic studies, and so Mary ‘retired within herself, and fell in love instead with Mr. Rochester, Hamlet, and Dr. Johnson.’

She lives in the village of Dedmayne, which to modern eyes seems deadly dull and unfulfilling. But Mary lives a happy life, devoted to and much loved by the parishioners, seemingly quite happy in her quiet existence. Happy that is until into her life appears Mr. Robert Herbert, son of a neighbouring clergyman, who befriends her father and so comes into contact with Mary, and awakens something deep inside her.

Slowly but surely Mary falls in love with him, and he with her. But fate intervenes, and the most they exchange in terms of passion in any material sense is one single kiss, and that only after he has married another woman. The author wants us to believe in theirs is a ‘once in a lifetime love’, and wants the reader to suffer as they do in its ultimately doomed conclusion. And indeed love is surely the greatest human emotion.

But to these present day hopefully slightly more emancipated female eyes, Mary’s tale is frustrating and a tad infuriating. She waits for years as a bystander as Robert finds happiness in an initially unhappy but later on a slightly more fulfilling marriage. Mary also yearns for love and affirmation from her father, but gets precious little of either, as he is incapable of expressing what little repressed feelings he has.

One kiss unleashes a great passion in Mary. She imagines that everyone else is capable of such stirring emotions too. ‘When she saw the village boys and girls together, she thought of the nerve- wracking rapture they were experiencing. She did not realise that perhaps one in a thousand feels as strongly as she did.’ Poor Mary – one kiss and still so much more to give.

If ever there was a case for giving up on a man who proved so undeserving of the devotion of a passionate woman, and who so deserved the mediocrity of a marriage he found himself to occupy, then this is surely it. Mary is a passionate and intelligent woman – but she needs shaking into the realisation that she has so much to give to someone who deserves it so much more.

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