F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter was published in 1924, during a period of massive change in society. The ruinous consequences of the first world war had radically destabilised established ideas and traditions: belief in the monolithic historical narratives of the nineteenth century which had situated the modern subject as the telos of an irresistible march toward progress was all but eradicated. Modernist literature of the period responded to what was a profound epistemological break. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Ernest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) interrogate the rise of individualism and the ideology in and of materialism. New forms and styles of writing also emerged in 1920’s literature, most notably the stream of consciousness narratives employed in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925).
Like the novel’s protagonist Mary, Mayor (b.1872) was the daughter of a vicar. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, she never married after her fiancé died of Typhoid in India. She lived with her sister Alice for the rest of her life. Alice, who never left home or attended university, seems to have been an inspiration for the character of Mary, who, awaiting a Romeo, resides at the crumbling, antiquated rectory in the village of Dedmayne.
The novel provides an alternative perspective on the Lost Generation (those who grew up during and immediately after WWI). Mary’s life is presented as empty, her outlook bleak and pessimistic – she rebukes a friend for calling her “wonderful”, replying “no there’s nothing wonderful about me”. Like the lives of the characters in Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, her life lacks a fulfilling purpose behind the trivial duties of everyday village life. However, Mary belongs to another kind of lost generation: still guided by outmoded Victorian expectations, Mary’s quest, like the Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, is love and marriage– yet this is rendered unobtainable in a post-WWI society. The novel enacts the fault line between the monolithic 19th century – it’s grand narrativity and subjectivity – and the modernist crisis of meaning through the character of Mary . The way in which love is held in reach of her before being cruelly withdrawn at the final moment forever, is as much a testament to the doubt and pessimism in Post-WWI society, and as gorgeous and heartbreaking a monument to loss as Gatsby’s tragic love for Daisy in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published a year after Mayor’s novel.
The exploration of the gulf between Victorian and early twentieth-century society, then, is a prime concern of the novel. This gulf also reveals itself in the tension between the novel’s formal style and content. Present are the characteristic themes of post-WWI literature: isolation, separation, the position of women conveyed to the reader by the omniscient, though effaced narrative voice of the 19th century novel, and there is a strain between the ostensibly modernist content and an outmoded style which combine in the form of a symptomatic reluctance to a full realization of the post-war age in which the characters find themselves. The incongruity and discontinuity which informs much modernist writing is expertly played out: set in a period of growing religious skepticism there are “Bibles in every room in the house”. Granted, her Father is a priest, but there is a contrived insistence in the abundance of the bibles: there are “nine” in the study and “six” in the drawing room. Mayor is a master of nuance: the occasional focus on such estranging, archaic elements creates an omnipresent atmosphere of disillusionment.
The Rector’s Daughter deserves to be considered a classic because it provides a distinct perspective upon the prevailing subjects of concern within post-WWI one society and literature. The novel redefines the ‘Lost Generation’. The subtly crafted modernisms of isolation, doubt and disillusionment are rendered through both character and narrative form by situating both at a subjective and historical fault line marking the border between discontinuity and classic realist denouement, closure and unity in the form of marriage and unrequited love haunt the text, but remain fleeting and evasive in a post-WWI society.
Robert Firth is a writer at Mercury Press.