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The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor

First published by The Hogarth Press, 1924; this edition Virago, 1987


Continuing with the theme of twentieth-century novels about women living unconventional lives. I find that I'm reading these with the same fascination as I devoured Victorian novels as a teenager.

Enjoyment factor

The Elizabeth Buchan quote on the cover is no exaggeration - I absolutely loved this novel. It's really stuck with me, and I'm only surprised that it's not better known.

Flora Macdonald Mayor was born in 1872 to a sophisticated, educated family; Flora herself going on to read history at Cambridge, pursue an acting career and then become a writer. She was briefly engaged to be married, but her fiancé sadly died, and she spent the rest of her life living with her sister.

Like Flora, the book's heroine, Mary, is the daughter of a highly respected intellectual and clergyman; like Flora, she is an aspiring writer, and again like Flora, Mary never marries.

But in all other respects, Flora and Mary are very different people. Whilst Flora was clearly a self-confident adventurer, Mary is a chronically shy homebody who lives for the approval of her kind but emotionally stunted father.

Mary is offered several opportunities to break out of her comfort zone both socially and professionally as a writer - but she never takes them. Likewise, she falls in love with a man who is what would have been known as a cad, but instead of making any serious attempts to move on, spends the rest of her life obsessing over him.

It's this flaw in Mary's character which makes the book so compelling. It's as if Flora Mayor was writing about her alter ego: the lonely woman she was terrified of becoming.

Given Flora's evident flamboyance, sociability and constant quest for new experiences and ideas, her creation of this character who shares so much with her circumstantially and yet fails to self-actualise is fascinating.

It left me thinking ...

Firstly, that to find happiness and fulfilment in life, you really do have to engage with the world, push your comfort zones and make your own luck. Granted that this wasn't easy for a woman in 1924, but, despite having opportunities put her way, Mary actively fails to do this, returning again and again to her quiet life with her distant father, craving his attention.

But secondly, that as an intellectual, unmarried woman who defied convention, this existence was clearly a fear of Flora Mayor's - so much so that she wrote a powerful novel exploring it.

Mary dies of influenza just before her fortieth birthday. Killing off the main character is a no-no in fiction - unless the narrator's voice trumps that of the character's. In doing this (via a short paragraph which you could almost miss), Flora Mayor is showing clearly who is telling the story here - it's her, not Mary.

This is a curious, powerful and, in Elizabeth Buchan's words, haunting read - highly recommended, and it should be better known.

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