I finished this several days ago and I’ve struggled to write about it, because it is such a profoundly sad, and in some ways, distressing book. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that it isn’t a good book, because I did, and it is; it’s more than good, actually. In fact, it’s one of the most well written books I’ve ever read. I think that’s why it had such a powerful effect on me, because it was such a truthful and poignant and human novel. The characters felt like real people to me by the end, and I was so drawn in to their world that I was left reeling each time I closed the pages, sometimes not being able to bear to pick it back up again. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a book, and I was surprised that this struck such a painful chord with me. I think it is because the main character is that much feared figure for a single woman; a spinster – pitied, unfulfilled, living a life of quiet, desperate usefulness to others, judged to have missed out on the true meaning of life by women who have successfully married and become mothers.
Mary Jocelyn is the Rector’s daughter of the title. She is in her thirties, stuck at home with her querulous, fiercely intelligent, impatient, yet well meaning elderly father, and watching other people’s lives go on around her. She exists to be of use to her family; first of all, she cares for her mentally deficient sister, who then dies, and after that, her increasingly aged father. She is so used to being alone, and to having few friends, that despite a rich and interesting imagination and remarkable intelligence, she struggles in social situations and is frequently misunderstood. The local villagers adore her, but those of her own set dismiss her as dull and odd. She longs for affection, for someone to bare her soul to, but even her closest friend Dora, also a spinster, is unable to offer this to her. Her father, Canon Jocelyn, treats her like a child, and though he loves her dearly, he is unable to express his feelings and instead comes across as cold and criticising.
Despite all of this, Mary is a cheerful, undemanding, gentle soul who is happy with her life. She doesn’t ask for much more than she has, and she has taught herself to be content with her lot. She doesn’t begrudge other people the happiness she so desires, and she is generous, kind, and compassionate to all. Then, one day, her world is rocked when a new curate, Mr Herbert, comes to Dedmayne, the small dreary village in which they live. Without realising it, Mary falls head over heels in love, and at last it seems her dreams are about to come true. But then they are suddenly, heartbreakingly, devastatingly dashed, and Mary’s life of gentle content is ruined forever. How can she ever now be content with the greyness of her life, when she, for a brief moment, lived in a rainbow of glorious colour?
Pushed about from pillar to post, belonging to no one, Mary’s life appears a shadow next to those of the married, busy, fulfilled women she is surrounded with. The quiet, desperate sadness that fills her days is amplified by the fact that everyone around her is so busy with their own happy and exciting lives that Mary is all but forgotten, and her unhappiness goes unnoticed. Worst of all, she must watch Mr Herbert and his wife’s unconventional, explosive, yet happy marriage unfold before her, forever wishing she were the one he had loved enough to marry. It was this juxtaposition of the emptiness and fullness of what a woman’s life can hold that pained me the most. Like Mary, I wondered at the unfairness of how some can have everything they dream of, and others nothing. Even if, as Mary does, you force yourself to make the best of things, that raw pain in your heart that lets you know you are not truly content can never really go away.
I felt Mary’s pain all the way through this searingly honest portrayal of a life that did not hold the promise its heart dreamed of. I so wanted Mary to be loved, I so wanted her to have the children she desired, and the home and husband of her own she longed for and would have so enjoyed. But it didn’t happen, and I couldn’t bear it, largely because, as I said earlier, I fear this fate so much for myself (yes, despite only being 24!). This is such a brilliant book, worthy of being a classic, really, in that it so perfectly encapsulates how limited unmarried women’s lives could be before the advent of feminism, as well as being such a tenderly, movingly written portrayal of the often stark, disappointing realities of life. I loved it, as much as it pained me to read it, because I was completely and utterly transported into the world of Dedmayne and its inhabitants, and I cared deeply for every character within it. Mary’s story is what would have been my beloved Anne Elliot’s, I feel, if Captain Wentworth hadn’t come back, and the best phrase I can feel to sum The Rector’s Daughter up is from Captain Wentworth’s lips; it ‘pierce[d] my soul’. I can’t recommend it enough.