Book review by George S: The first sentence of this book sets an unromantic tone:
Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties.
We are told:
Part of Dedmayne was even ugly; there was a bit of straight flat road near the church, with low dusty hedges, treeless turnip fields, and corrugated iron roofs of barns which might rank with Canada.
F.M Mayor is not a sentimental or euphemistic writer. Her heroine, Mary, ‘was a decline. Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early.’ She has spent her life looking after her father and her ‘imbecile sister’, and it is when the sister dies that she becomes sharply aware that at thirty-six her life-chances are dwindling.
A ‘crumbling decay’ pervades the rectory, and that is pretty much how her father, Canon Jocelyn, likes it. He is from another age, devoted to his Virgil and his Tertullian, scornful of the younger clerics who do not know their classics but run Boys’ Clubs. Without intending it, the man is a monster. He has remarkably little self-knowledge, or awareness of his effect on others, and without realising it crushes Mary, especially in her literary ambitions.
She is equally crushed when she sends some of her writing to a literary acquaintance in London. She is introduced to a sub-Bloomsbury set of free-livers and free-lovers whom she cannot understand. (The satire on these is fairly standard, but still funny.) Nothing comes of her desire to publish.
From this unromantic setting and atmosphere of repression, the book’s passion is even more striking when it arrives.
A new clergyman arrives in the district, with whom Mary forms an affinity. Since Mr Herbert is a classicist, even her father approves of him. The pair are almost on the tremulous verge of declaring their feelings for each other, but then Mr Herbert goes on holiday, meets a pretty but shallow young woman, and marries her.
This is a tragedy for Mary, but also for the married couple, who soon begin to grate on each other. F.M. Mayor is a proper novelist. She doesn’t just take you through Mary’s emotions; you get to understand the points of view of Mr Herbert and his Kathy, too.
The book is very much about the generations; Mary has internalised the values of an older generation, like her father and Mr Herbert’s mother, who is horrified when Kathy smokes a cigarette in her drawing-room:
Not only had no one, male or female, ever smoked in her drawing-room, she did not know such a thing was a possibility.
Kathy’s apology makes things worse:
‘My cig. Oh, cheerio. Sorry.’ Each word choked Mrs Herbert more than a cigarette.
Kathy is a particularly well-drawn character. Mayor presents her as modern, slangy, selfish and unaware of how much she is hurting people; but when she is at her worst, planning to go off with a man she meets in the South of France, something terrible happens. A botched operation on an abscess leaves her facially disfigured, and Mayor lets us see more of her, her fears and weaknesses and also her courage. She is someone who Mary never quite comprehends, but Mayor allows the reader to understand her.
When she goes back to Herbert disfigured, the marriage is mended, and Mary finds herself able to sympathise with Kathy – yet at the same time she feels a dreadful guilt, because while Kathy was off disporting herself in France, she and Mr Herbert shared one glorious kiss. It’s the only romantic kiss of her life, and its effect on her is transforming. Yet in her enclosed life, there is no one she can tell about it, and the memory burns into her when the Herberts’ marriage is mended again.
F.M. Mayor had been an actress, and is really good at giving us a scene with lots of subtext under the dialogue.
This book belongs to a genre (‘passions of a spinster’) that I’m not very fond of, but it transcends the genre. It is very well-written, full of sharp observations, entertaining even when the incidents are grim, this is one of those books that makes me ask ‘Why have I never heard of this author before?’ At the meeting we heard about another of her novels, The Third Miss Symons of 1913. This again is about a Cindrella who never quite gets to the ball, so maybe her range was limited. Which does not affect the fact that this is a very good novel. Highly recommended.