Review by Thecla W:
Rachel Bland is 30 and has looked after her bullying, invalid father for the 12 years since her mother died. For some years she has been courted by Robert, a local farmer and Methodist lay preacher. As her father dies, Stanley, a cousin of Rachel’s, arrives in the village. He has come from Canada to make a claim that his mother was defrauded of her property by Mr Bland. Also living in the village are an older pair, Josey and Achsah, who are brother and sister. They have living with them two young women, Aggie and her sister, Kitty. Kitty is seriously mentally and physically disabled and is cared for by Achsah and Aggie.
Mr Bland’s will leaves everything to Rachel provided that she doesn’t marry Robert but they decide to marry anyway. Rachel has never understood how her mother came to marry her father. She learns from Achsah that her father raped her mother and they had to get married. She sees herself as “a child of shame”. Stanley and Aggie become engaged; Rachel and Robert are planning their wedding but for Rachel, much as she loves Robert, there are other considerations.
I found it hard to know what to make of this novel. Initially I felt that I was reading a rather old-fashioned story of a dutiful daughter, family secrets, a father’s vindictive Last Will and Testament, an unknown cousin with a claim and various young people to be disposed of in marriage by the end, the whole infused with the tenets of Nonconformism. But just as this seems to be working out, there is a change of tone.
Rachel is to marry Robert and thus lose her inheritance which will then go to her cousin, Stanley. He is to marry Aggie who will go to Canada with him. All seems set for a wholesomely happy ending.
But Stanley and Aggie’s plans evoke an unpleasantly harsh response from Rachel who thinks that Aggie should stay at home and help Achsah look after Kitty. She tells Achsah that Aggie “will run away from her duty and leave you to it” and says to Robert that “a just God would recompense punishment for this plain dereliction of duty”. Neither of them agree with her, with Achsah telling her that her (Rachel’s) fault is putting duty before love.
Achsah is also critical of Rachel seeing herself as a child of shame and tells her not to have too much pride.
Brooding on the circumstances of her birth, Rachel comes to see her mother’s marriage as wicked, the Bland family as doomed and herself as carrying the seeds of the curse. She decides not to marry Robert but to devote herself to caring for Kitty and Achsah who has had a stroke.
I have to say that I found this profoundly unconvincing. I take it that Rachel’s harshness and exaltation of duty are also part of her inheritance along with the rejected property and the family “curse”.
However, although Rachel has cared dutifully for her appalling father, her presentation in the earlier part of the novel doesn’t quite prepare the reader for this choice of duty over love. It is explicitly stated that the Bland family are decent folk overall with only an occasional bad apple like Rachel’s father, which hardly seems to constitute a family curse even combined with her father’s rape of her mother.
Rachel asserts to the end that she truly loves Robert but she won’t marry him and chooses to devote herself to looking after the two invalids. This seems to me to happen quite abruptly and only these alternatives are presented. There is no suggestion that it might be possible somehow to combine marriage to Robert with caring for Achsah and Kitty, with help from others.
The plot feels as if it has been carefully structured to illustrate a moral. For example, Achsah is not incapacitated by her stroke until after Aggie has departed for Canada but before Rachel has married Robert. This a necessary contrivance to provide Rachel with her self-imposed dilemma but it feels rather artificial, I think because the characterization isn’t strong enough to support the plot.
But what moral is being illustrated here?
In the end I was baffled as to how to take Rachel and her decisions.
Is this a sad story of a woman so self-denying and obsessed with duty that she refuses to marry the man she loves and prefers to devote herself to caring for two invalids?
Or an uplifting, moral tale of self-sacrifice and duty willingly undertaken?
See also our profile of Willie Riley.