Laughter in the library: F.M. Mayor at Cambridge

I’m delighted that my piece on F.M. Mayor’s unforgettable novel The Rector’s Daughter (1924) has just been published in the latest edition of Slightly Foxed (Spring 2023, issue 77: ‘Laughter in the library’). I loved thinking about how happy and free the young Flora Mayor felt, studying at Newnham College in the early 1890s, acting in the college dramatic society and learning how to ride a bicycle. Her life after Cambridge did not fulfil her hopes and ambitions, but the love of her twin sister Alice helped to give her the strength to keep working on what would become a twentieth-century masterpiece.

I wrote a previous blogpost about this wonderful book, ‘FM Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter’, and the Slightly Foxed editors have kindly given me permission to reproduce my new essay below.

Out of the Shadows

Take two sisters, Alice and Flora Mayor, identical twins born into a comfortable upper-middle-class family in Surrey in 1872. Their clergyman father was also a professor of classical literature at King’s College, London, and their mother Jessie a talented musician and linguist. As members of a Victorian clerical family, the girls had certain duties (‘Church as depressing as usual. 2 and a half people there,’ young Flora wrote in her diary), but mostly they and their two older brothers had tremendous fun: performing amateur theatricals, skating and playing tennis, singing, writing stories, going to the theatre, and always, always reading: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Mrs Gaskell.

Some of their parents’ intellectual interests must have rubbed off though, because at 20, Flora decided to study history at Newnham College, Cambridge. She hated to leave Alice behind, but the sisters wrote to each other every day, Flora’s letters bursting with news of boating on the river, late-night cocoa parties, debating and drama. A college photograph of her shows a dark-haired young woman with laughing eyes (‘Miss Dant said I’d got a great deal of fun about me’). Alice remained quietly at home, sketching and practising her music, while Flora was having all sorts of new adventures. ‘The bicycle is fascinating,’ she told Alice, ‘it’s much easier than skating – not so tiring. Mounting is a trial and one must have knickerbockers for it.’

In the late 1980s, almost a century after Flora, I became a postgraduate student at Cambridge and bought a second-hand bicycle during my first week. Cycling to the university library every day – in jeans rather than knickerbockers – gave me a delicious sense of freedom. I found a battered green-spined Virago paperback of Flora’s novel The Rector’s Daughter on a market stall and fell in love with it, but I didn’t know much about its author. Tidying my bookshelves recently, I rediscovered my student novel collection, and decided to find out more about her.

Growing up, the Mayor twins were close to ‘the Aunts’, their father’s seven unmarried sisters who lived together in Hampstead. All were energetic, cultivated and useful women, but Flora was determined not to be like them or the sister whom she so closely resembled. After four years at Cambridge, she decided to go on the stage, but it wasn’t the glamorous life she’d envisaged. With mostly nonspeaking parts, little money and endless provincial tours, her health began to suffer. Her ambitions to be a writer seemed to be equally ill-starred. When her collection of stories, Mrs Hammond’s Children, was published under her stage name ‘Mary Strafford’ in 1901, the critics were decidedly lukewarm.

So there would be no standing ovation for Flora/Mary, but there was someone waiting in the wings. Ernest Shepherd, a young architect and close friend of one of her brothers, had been in love with her for years. After he was offered a post in the Architectural Survey of India, he travelled to Flora’s cheap lodgings in Macclesfield to propose. She said yes, rather to her own surprise. ‘Being kissed is so odd,’ she told Alice. Ernest left for India, and six months of letters followed, discussing the date of their wedding and their plans for the future.

When the telegram came with the devastating news that Ernest had died of malaria, Flora broke down. At 32, her dreams of a life as an actress and as a cherished wife and mother were over. She poured her feelings into a ‘Grief Journal’ that she signed Flora Shepherd, the name she would now never have. Writing – and Alice’s loving care – were to save her.

Flora’s masterpiece, The Rector’s Daughter, was published under the authorship of F. M. Mayor by the Hogarth Press in 1924. It’s a short, quietly humorous and deeply perceptive novel that’s as good as anything George Eliot ever wrote. Set in the fictional village of Dedmayne, ‘on the way to nowhere’ in the eastern counties, most of the action, such as it is, takes place at the Rectory, where the clocks seem to have stopped around 1895. The Rector, Canon Jocelyn, is an octogenarian clergyman whose dignified bearing and ‘severe, satirical, and melancholy’ eyes make him a striking figure. By contrast, his 35-year-old daughter Mary is described as ‘a decline’.

Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue, not much lighter than her hair. She had her father’s beautiful eyes, and hid them with glasses.

Dowdy Mary Jocelyn seems nothing like vivacious Flora Mayor, but they have a similar intellectual heritage. ‘Books streamed everywhere, all over the house, even up the attic stairs’ of the Rectory, but ‘not more than three Miltons, because of undesirable views on kings, liberty and divorce’. Canon Jocelyn has a sharp, inquiring mind but his daughter is a puzzle to him, and he fails to grasp her aching need for love. For a time, her older, disabled sister Ruth provides this, but after she dies, only Cook (‘a working woman of sixty-three’) shows Mary any affection. Novels offer her some solace during the long winter months: Trollope, Charlotte M. Yonge and Jane Austen are ‘friends so dear and familiar that they peopled her loneliness’.

Mary has a secret that she does not share with her father or Cook: she writes stories and poetry. By chance, she is introduced to the well-connected Brynhilda, whose poet friend Dermott is enthusiastic about Mary’s writing. ‘I have never known anyone on such intimate terms with toads,’ he writes, ‘and this, coupled with a passion for Mother Julian of Norwich, indicates a mind I want to know more of.’ Mary, daringly, agrees to visit Brynhilda’s bohemian London flat 79 Out of the Shadows and at first enjoys its relaxed atmosphere. ‘There was no snapping, fussiness or anxiety. Mary remembered many throes at the Rectory: if the cat took the day off in the woods, if a member of the household was late.’ But after a miserable soirée among the fashionable literary set (‘it was a tribute to Brynhilda that it should come to such a wrong part of London as Kensington’), Mary realizes that she is little more than an object of curiosity to these bright young things, and she returns with relief to decaying Dedmayne. ‘On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.’

Like a bright-eyed toad in its shadowy habitat, Mary is content to hide herself away. Then Robert Herbert, a middle-aged clergyman from a neighbouring parish, comes to call. Like Canon Jocelyn, he is a well-read Cambridge graduate, and the two men get on famously, discussing the Greek testament and seventeenth-century folios. Mr Herbert and Mary establish a tentative friendship too, but neither is romantically inclined, or so they tell themselves. One wintry day, as they take their usual walk together in the Rectory garden, everything changes.

The equinoctial wind rushed through the branches of the old elms and roared like the sea. It gave a colour to Mary’s cheeks; her eyes dilated and brightened; the spirit that sometimes showed itself in her writings looked forth. Mr Herbert saw her eyes.

It’s a charged encounter that neither of them will ever forget, but like the wind that changes direction unexpectedly, things don’t go according to plan.

When The Rector’s Daughter was first published, it was widely praised by critics who traced its lineage to the writers whom Mayor loved: Jane Austen, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. ‘It is like a bitter Cranford,’ wrote Sylvia Lynd. The public loved it too, and Boots Library had to restrict its lending rules due to the novel’s overwhelming popularity. In 1925 The Rector’s Daughter was shortlisted for the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse, an annual literary prize in the interwar years for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India won it that year, but Mayor’s consolation prize was an admiring letter Forster wrote to her that begins ‘This is Dedmayne, plus better scenery’ (he was staying at his unmarried aunt’s house on the Isle of Wight at the time). ‘Mary begins as ridiculous and ends as dignified,’ he told her, ‘this seems to me a very great achievement.’

I like to picture the young Flora Mayor in Cambridge, cycling by the river and dreaming of the adventures that lay ahead of her. Life didn’t bring the excitement she wanted, but she found a lasting contentment in her writing, and in sharing a home with her twin. Flora died of pneumonia in 1932 at the age of 59; Alice, who cared for her sister and made it possible for her to write, lived until 1960. F. M. Mayor’s small output of novels, including The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), soon fell out of print, but those who read The Rector’s Daughter never forgot it. In 1941, amidst the London Blitz, the novelist Rosamond Lehmann paid tribute to Mary Jocelyn as ‘my favourite character in contemporary fiction’, and in 1967 Leonard Woolf described the novel as ‘remarkable’ in the fourth volume of his autobiography, Downhill All the Way. Encouraged by this, Flora’s niece Teresa (Lady Rothschild) asked her brother Andreas Mayor to approach Penguin Books, and The Rector’s Daughter appeared as a Penguin Modern Classic in 1973. It became a Virago Modern Classic in 1987 and has recently been reissued by Persephone Books with a foreword by Alice and Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray. It seems somehow right that it was Flora Mayor’s nephew and niece, remembering their writer aunt, who helped to bring her extraordinary, understated novel out from the shadows.

ANN KENNEDY SMITH is writing a book about Cambridge women. She still lives in the city, and cycles by the river most days.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 77 © Ann Kennedy Smith 2023

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