F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1924)

Flora Mayor (1872-1932)

The Rector’s Daughter belongs to the finest English tradition of novel writing. It is like a bitter Cranford… Mary Jocelyn’s ‘nothing’ is a full and rich state of being.’ Sylvia Lund, Time and Tide, 18 July 1924

When F.M. (Flora Macdonald) Mayor’s second novel, The Rector’s Daughter, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1924, the Woolfs were surprised to have a bestseller on their hands. ‘Lytton Strachey, my sister and Duncan Grant have all been reading it with great interest’, Virginia Woolf wrote. E.M. Forster described it as ‘a very great achievement’, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised it. The Rector’s Daughter was a runner-up for the 1925 ‘Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse’, a literary prize for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’ (Forster’s A Passage to India won that year instead). Then, for almost fifty years, F.M. Mayor’s novel was out of print and apparently forgotten, although reading it during the Blitz did give the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann some comfort: ‘In its quiet and personal way The Rector’s Daughter is a piece of history’, she wrote in 1941.

But it’s not exactly a neglected twentieth-century classic. After Penguin Books reissued it in their Modern Classics series in 1973, The Rector’s Daughter hasn’t been out of print for the last fifty years. In 1987 the new publishers on the block, Virago, took it over and reissued it in their own highly successful Virago Modern Classics series, with its distinctive bottle green spines, and it was reprinted in 1999, 2008 (twice) and 2009 (three times). The Rector’s Daughter has the rare distinction during the same period of being one the few novels that merited new editions as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic (1992) and a Penguin Modern Classic (2001). Even so, in 2010 BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ described it as ‘an unfairly neglected classic’ when it was read in ten episodes by Juliet Stevenson (it’s still available on BBC Sounds, and well worth listening to). In 2021 The Rector’s Daughter was reissued by Persephone Books in an elegant new edition with a biographical foreword by Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray, who in 1992 wrote a radio play based on the book with her late husband, the dramatist Simon Gray.

Yet, for all this, The Rector’s Daughter is still a novel that seems to exist just below the literary radar, much loved by its readers, but also, somehow, not widely read. Little has been written by scholars about this or F.M. Mayor’s other works, perhaps because she produced so few in her lifetime (a collection of her ghost stories, said to be admired by M.R. James, was published posthumously). Her two other novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), were also reissued by Virago Modern Classics in the 1980s.  Sybil Oldfield’s Spinsters of this Parish: the life and times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks (Virago, 1984) is a well-researched dual biography that provides a fascinating social context for Mayor’s life and unsuccessful attempt to make a living as an actress. The chapter on her four years at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s is particularly revealing, including the revelation that Mayor and her former tutor, Mary Bateson, remained close friends until Bateson’s early death in 1906.

Flora Mayor’s lifelong poor health made her unable to fulfil much of her literary promise, sadly. However, she was a successful author with a three-book contract with Constable when she died of pneumonia in 1932, aged fifty-nine. In a recent piece for The Times, the writer D.J. Taylor describes The Rector’s Daughter as ‘one of those curious novels in which a cauldron of suppressed emotion and unrequited love boils away behind a landscape in which, for all practical purposes, hardly anything happens’ and says that as a novelist, F.M. Mayor ranks with Jane Austen and George Eliot.

I would agree, and The Rector’s Daughter is Mayor’s masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in a forthcoming issue of Slightly Foxed.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

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