Two or three months ago I blogged about THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER by F. M. Mayor and wondered if it was time to revisit it. Well, soon after this I offered it as one of the choices for my reading group and it was the one they picked. So I have reread it and what an experience it has been. It has made me reflect on the changing relationship that one has with fictional characters. When I first read this book I was younger than the main character in this book. Mary Jocelyn is thirty-five when the story begins, looking after her elderly clergyman father and feeling bereft after the death of the disabled sister she has devoted herself to. It’s set in the 1920s and Mary’s life as a young single woman could scarcely be different from what mine was. Yet I identified with her strongly and when I read the novel I still do, though I overtook her long ago. When I put the novel down at the end, I found myself thinking ‘I wish I could write like that.’ In some ways she is a little like Jane Austen, though there is a passion and an intensity that is all Mayor’s own. However they are both writers who work on a small canvas and like Austen, Mayor has an engagingly ironic cast of mind. It’s hard to date THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER from internal evidence – no mention of political events and the outside world hardly impinges at all. And yet, though there is no overt social comment, the restrictions of Mary’s life and the astounding selfishness of her father speak volumes about the position of women. Mayor has a understanding of human emotions and a sympathy and a tolerance that reminds me of Trollope, though the tone of her writing is so very different. I fell in love with this novel all over again. It’s a masterpiece.
Elizabeth Jenkins died a few days ago at the age of 104. She’s a writer I’ve long admired. She was a distinguished biographer – Jane Austen, Elizabeth I – and a fine novelist. There are two works that I go back to regularly. One is her 1954 novel, THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE. The story is told mainly from the point of view of Imogen Gresham, who when the novel opens seems to live a charmed life with her high-powered barrister husband, Evelyn, and her son, Gavin, in a beautiful Regency house in Berkshire. We see her examining a piece of pottery in an antique shop, attracted its colour: her husband points out that it is chipped. ‘It would come apart in no time.’ And even in this first chapter, we begin to see what Imogen is scarcely aware of: the chip in her marriage as she fails to perceive the nature of growing friendship between Evelyn and their neighbour, Blance Silcox. Surely this stout, plain, dowdy spinster of fifty can pose no threat to Imogen, still in her thirties, elegant, lovely? I think this novel is almost perfect, though rereading it a year or two ago, I felt that there was a flaw in her treatment of a couple who arrive in the village bringing with them all kind of progressive fads to do with ‘improving’ village life, while at the same time their own children are neglected. Jenkins’s viewpoint was instinctly conservative and these characters are so sharply satirized that it unbalances the novel. Still it is wonderfully readable and looking at it just now I was immediately sucked into it again.
The other book I love to re-read is YOUNG ENTHUSIASTS, first published in 1947, an unusual blend of fiction and memoir, which vividly evokes the atmosphere and the characters, both teachers and pupils, in a progressive school in the thirties. It manages to convey more than any book I know what teaching is like: exhausting, rewarding, unpredictable. It is full of perception and wisdom, and she writes like a dream. I wish now that I had written and told her how much pleasure her writing has given me.
During the fortnight since I wrote about Harry Kemelman I have been reading my way contentedly through FRIDAY THE RABBI SLEPT LATE, SUNDAY THE RABBI STAYED HOME, TUESDAY THE RABBI SAW RED, WEDNESDAY THE RABBI GOT WET, THURSDAY THE RABBI WALKED OUT and have got MONDAY THE RABBI TOOK OFF on my reading pile. At only a few pounds each on Abebooks, they are good value. In some ways I do miss those pre-internet days of prowling around second hand bookshops, the thrill of the chase, and the excitement of finally coming across a book you’d been wanting for ages. Now it’s just a matter of a few clicks of the mouse and the books are winging their way to you, but of course that’s great too. I like the titles of the Rabbi books and wonder if Kemelman had expected to write a series. Once he had worked his way through the days of the week, he moved on to ‘Someday’ and ‘One Fine Day.’ I still intend to read those too.
I’ve also managed to get through a fair number of contemporary crime novels over the summer and two that stand out are Hakan Nesser’s WOMAN WITH BIRTHMARK and Laura Wilson’s AN EMPTY DEATH. I very much like Nesser and have read all his books as they’ve been published in English. In this one we know who the killer is from the start, though we don’t know her precise motivation, and the suspense lies in whether she will get to the end of her list before Inspector Van Veeteren tracks her down. Laura Wilson’s novel is the second in her historical series set in the forties and is a perfect holiday read: dense and meaty with a plot twist that took my breath away. I recommend them both.