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.
I do tend to re-read quite a lot. There are books I can go back to again and again, some of them classics, such as MANSFIELD PARK, others my own discoveries, such as Joyce Dennys’s HENRIETTA’S WAR: NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT 1939-1942 and HENRIETTA SEES IT THROUGH: NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT 1942-1945. These are collections of articles illustrated with witty pen and ink drawings that were published in the SKETCH. They are a fictionalised version of the writer’s own life as a GP’s wife in Budleigh Salterton during the war. They are both funny and touching, and I read them them every two or three years for pure pleasure.
A book which is acquiring a similar status for me is John Baxter’s A POUND OF PAPER: CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK ADDICT. I first read it about five years ago and I’m now reading it again. It tells the story of a life through books and book collecting and what a life it has been. He grew up in Australia, left school at fifteen and worked for ten years as a clerk for the New South Wales Government Railways, before realising that he was in danger of spending the rest of his life there. He left to pursue his passion for literature and film and there followed a rather rackety life of writing, teaching, broadcasting and book-collecting in Australia, Britain and the States. He got through a couple of marriages, too, before ending up in Paris with a French wife and daughter. There are several fascinating appendices, including one of responses from writers and collectors to the question of what single book they would rescue if their house were on fire. So what would mine be? Not my own books or my husband’s, they are easily replaced, though THE QUEST FOR THE GRAIL is quite expensive now. After considerable thought I’ve decided I would probably chose ANNE OF AVONLEA by L. M. Montgomery. It’s a battered and foxed reprint of 1940, worth nothing in collector’s terms, but it belonged to my mother and I loved it myself as a child. We had ANNE OF GREEN GABLES too, but I don’t know what happened to it.
What would your choice be? I love to know.