Review by Margaret B:
The story takes place over a period of a week at the end of the summer. Edward Stack, his wife Margaret and their nineteen year old daughter, Hilary, return from two months’ holiday. Edward’s cousin Maurice Roper has been looking after Edward’s parish while they are away. Just after they had left, a young woman, Caroline, had presented herself at the vicarage with a letter for Edward from her mother, asking Edward to help Caroline. Knowing some of Edward’s past and his relationship with the young woman’s mother, Maurice had jumped to the conclusion that Caroline must be Edward’s illegitimate daughter. Her arrival at the vicarage had coincided with a vacancy for a housekeeper at the home of the Stack’s neighbours, the Blunts, so Maurice had suggested her for the post.
The story covers the Stack family’s return, Maurice’s dilemma over whether and how he should tell them about Caroline, the Blunt family’s own secret and Margaret Stack’s attempts to protect her family and particularly her daughter Hilary from unpleasantness.
It deals with issues of family loyalty, bullying, of jumping to the wrong conclusions and of navigating a path between right and wrong when there are no clear answers.
At the end of “The Vicar’s Daughter” EH Young writes of Margaret Stack, “for this comedy of errors, she could only blame herself” (page 286) and while the whole plot revolves around errors, the book can hardly be seen as a comedy. The actual plot, treated differently could have been the plot of an archetypal Brian Rix farce with the many misinterpretations, hasty conclusions, and melodramatic assumptions of Margaret and of Maurice Roper, her husband’s cousin. There is even much running on and off the “set” – the Stack’s vicarage and characters rushing over to their neighbours, John and James Blunts’ house. Maurice and Margaret are like dancers in a Scottish country dance coming together, separating and coming together again. Sometimes they collude together, at other times they are argue or one upsets the other. Sometimes one leads and the other follows, then they swap.
For over twenty years Maurice been in love with Margaret, although she does not at first know this, adding to the potential farcical nature of their interactions. The beautiful but insecure Margaret and the priggish, inadequate Maurice bumble about through the novel, jumping to often erroneous conclusions as they struggle to work out what to do about two family secrets, both feeling morally superior to the other despite both of them tending to cause more harm than good.
So there are all the potential elements of a good farce in the plot and the characters. But the pain and genuine angst of both characters as they try to navigate their own confused feelings of love and hate, right and wrong, inadequacy and pride, loyalty and revenge makes this a much more serious book. The language also contributes to the far more serious treatment that EH Young gives us – at times it almost comes across as a sermon.
The uncertainty of what Margaret should do is summed up in this wordy and dense paragraph on page 241:
“She felt tired, incapable of emotion, and her mind, detached from agitating considerations, could deal reflectively with the double dramas of John’s dishonesty and Edward’s youthful sin, known to each other, unless Caroline had been silent, and both depending for proof on assertions alone, both hasty sins, if Margaret judged John aright, and both, in their complications of fear, repentance, jealousy, revenge and love, liable to change the currents of many lives. This might be well or it might be ill: the problem of good and evil, in intention and in result, could not be settled until the end of time, for as the cause of sin might lie in some good intention generations back, so what seemed evil might be productive of future good. There was nothing to be done with the past or the future except what seemed good in the present and even that was doubtful.”
Maurice’s angst is more religious in nature compared with the more practical Margaret. We are first told about it on page 19:
“He stared at the reflection of a bewildered clergyman who could not answer. Was God showing him the path he ought to take or putting temptation in his way? These were the questions which had been torturing him for weeks. His prayers for guidance had not been answered and, believing as he did that no honest prayer was ignored by God, he felt he was in the shadow of His displeasure. But why?”
Both these quotations are also typical of the style of the book, with many long and wordy discussions by the narrator on religion, on the nature of sin and what is right and wrong. This gives it quite a preachy and dated feel to a modern audience. There are also quite a lot of references to theological argument within Anglicanism that were probably much more understandable to a contemporary reader than to us.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book a great deal. EH Young provides real insight into people struggling to do what they think is right but often overwhelmed by strong emotions. Her descriptions of Maurice’s inadequacy and self-doubt made me feel both sorry for him and infuriated by him – much as the characters in the book did. Margaret too was convincing – being neither too good or too bad but a realistic and complex character.
Provided the reader can manage to ignore the sermonising and sometimes clunky language, it is quite a page turner – even though everything takes place in just a few days in the close vicinity of the Stack’s vicarage and there are only eight characters. EH Young creates a tense and claustrophobic atmosphere in the hot, humid late summer with a storm brewing. As the book reaches its climax, the storm breaks:
“And meanwhile the thunder, the sound impersonal, yet applicable to many states of mind, to fear, triumph, despair, suspense, was gradually coming nearer and the rain slackened a little as if to listen,” (page 241)
The dialogue is good and sharp and there is humour in the book but this is because the characters particularly Margaret have a sense of humour, rather than it being a comic novel. For example, Margaret says to her daughter about Maurice:
“What amazes me is that he is still alive. Forty five years of hopeless blundering and nobody has killed him! It speaks volumes for the patience of the human nature…I don’t want to kill him, he is too soft. It would be like hitting a cat- no satisfaction at all. Dogs get hit but cats don’t. There is no resistance in a cat. That must be the reason, and that’s why Maurice has escaped.”(page 267)
Like a farce everything is resolved in the end, the mistakes revealed and “all’s well” (page 286) but unlike a farce, Margaret at least, realises her mistakes, learns from them and tries to make amends.