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

Two Women Scholars

It’s still shocking to think that while Cambridge was one of the first universities to offer women residential university education (Girton College opened its doors in 1869, Newnham in 1871) it was the last UK university to award them degrees, in 1948. Women students, lecturers, postgraduate scholars and scientists were denied not only Cambridge degrees but also research funding and scholarships, and had only restricted access to the University Library for many years.

Recently I was pleased to give a talk to the Cambridge Archivists’ Group highlighting the work of two campaigning historians, Mary Bateson at Newnham and Ellen McArthur at Girton from the late 19th to the early 20th century. I discussed how they not only succeeded in their own academic research and campaigned for the title of degrees to be awarded to women in 1897, they also actively promoted women’s scholarship at Cambridge and left legacies that continue today.

My thanks to the group for inviting me; below is a link to their excellent blogpost about my talk.

A Cambridge woman’s business: Louisa Greef (1829-1913)

Louise Rayner, King’s Parade, Cambridge (c.1901) Watercolour

In 1950, Florence Ada Keynes published her memoir, Gathering Up the Threads: A study in family biography. It paints a memorable picture of her time as one of the first students at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1870s, when she recalls being amused by the names of ‘Greef’, ‘Sadd’ and ‘Pain’ over the shops in King’s Parade, Cambridge (see Rayner’s watercolour from the early 1900s, above).

As part of my research into the early years of women at Cambridge, I was looking through Newnham College’s account books from the 1880s when the name ‘Greef’ caught my eye. There was a carefully written note of a payment made to ‘L. Greef, painter’, and I assumed that this referred to a man. After some further research into Greef’s college account books dating bak to 1798 held at Cambridge University Library (see below), I discovered that Louisa Greef was a woman. She took charge of a long-established family business that had provided plumbing and glazing to the men’s colleges for over a hundred years, and she successfully took it in a new direction.

Louisa was born Louisa Headdey in Cambridge in 1829, the fourth and youngest child of William Headdey, a butler at Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Elizabeth Headdey (1807-1887). She married Robert Greef at All Saints’ Church in 1863 and moved into his family home at 4 King’s Parade. There, the Greefs’ home and business was situated between John Swan, a retired bootmaker and his wife, and Mary Careless, a bedmaker with her five student lodgers. The Greefs had a cook and a housemaid, and three undergraduate lodgers. Louisa’s mother Elizabeth Headdey who was living with them was listed as an ‘assistant’. Robert Greef ran the long-established family business that provided plumbing and window glazing services to the colleges.

A year later Robert and Louisa’s only child, Louisa Ellen Greef, was born, but sadly she died just a few weeks later. The family grave is in Mill Road Cemetery, and there is more information about the Greefs on this excellent website. In the 1871 census Robert Greef was listed as a ‘Plumber Master employing 10 men’. In 1872 the couple were joined by Louisa’s 17 year old nephew Arthur Headdey (the son of Louisa’s brother William) who came to work for them as a trainee accountant, and his younger cousin Henry Edward Fuller (born 1858) the son of Louisa’s sister Elizabeth. He started working for the firm as an apprentice plumber.

In 1876 Robert died aged 43, and Louisa, aged 47, took charge. It was not unknown for a widow to take over the family business in this way. After Robert’s father died in 1838, his mother Ann run the business while bringing up three children, and Louisa’s sister Elizabeth Fuller, also a widow, had been running her husband’s bakery and brewery business at 45 Sidney Street since 1869. Her older son was now working as a college cook and her daughter Annie was a music governess.

With the help of her two nephews, Louisa soon expanded the business. According to the 1881 she employed thirty men, meaning that within five years, the company’s size had tripled. This was largely thanks to her decision to move into the area of painting and decorating, to cater for the growing demands of colleges and domestic customers in the new family houses springing up around Cambridge. Among them was the Keynes’s house in the new development of Harvey Road. Louisa was ambitious: ‘L.Greef, Plumber, Glazier, Plain & Decorative Painter and Paperhanger’ was advertised in Spalding’s Almanack stating that they provide window glazing for ‘Public and Private Buildings’, and in 1882 hers was one of three companies to tender a quotation to refurbish the Guildhall (now demolished). Unfortunately for her, the contract went to F. R. Leach instead.

But there was plenty of work to go around for both firms in the busily expanding Cambridge of the 1880s, and Leach and Greef worked together on a decorating and bathroom refitting job for Trinity Hall in 1882. Soon afterwards Louisa Greef’s firm took on new work at Newnham College. They had been employed there since the mid 1870s as a plumber and glazer, but from Michaelmas term 1885, L.Greef was referred to as ‘painter-plumber’, having taken over the painting and decorating work previously carried out by F.R. Leach.

It may have been that the Leach firm had become too expensive for Newnham, who had to manage their finances very carefully in the early years. The Vice-Principal and mathematician Eleanor Sidgwick, in charge of the accounts, called this ‘chasing twopences’. As I turned over the pages of the Newnham College account books, I thought about how hard Eleanor Sidgwick, Anne Clough and Helen Gladstone worked to expand the college during those years. Did they also want to support a decorating company run by a professional, independent woman? It is possible.

In 1891 Louisa handed over the management of her business to her nephew Henry Fuller, the former plumber. She continued to live at King’s Parade while Henry managed the business, and his commitment to the firm (and to his aunt Louisa) can be seen by the fact that he later changed his surname to Greef. Louisa had a long and, it seems, happy retirement, living with her two unmarried nieces, Annie and Alice Fuller. She died in 1913.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2022

Gathering Up The Threads by FA Keynes (W. Heffer & Sons, 1950); cover illustration by Gwen Raverat

‘A great deal of taste’: Mr Leach’s houses

Leach & Simpson tradecard, © David Parr House Cambridge

After the university permitted its academics to marry, the late Victorian period saw substantial family homes springing up around Cambridge in areas including Grange Road, Madingley Road, St Paul’s Road, Brooklands Avenue and the De Freville Estate. The Arts and Crafts movement had begun to catch the public imagination, and the ‘university brides’ who made their homes in the town wanted their houses to be both artistically beautiful as well as hygienic and up-to-date, with modern drainage, heating and lighting.

Since the late 1860s the Cambridge-based ‘artworkman’ Frederick Leach had become well known for his work in decorating churches, grand houses and civic buildings all over England. In 1867 he worked with the Gothic Revival architect G.F. Bodley and the stained glass artist Charles Eamer Kempe at St John the Baptist, Tuebrook in Liverpool. In his book Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe (Lutterworth, 2018), Adrian Barlow describes this work as ‘one of the greatest schemes of painted decoration in any nineteenth-century British church’ (you can read about Kempe’s pelicans in Adrian’s excellent blog here).

In Frederick Leach, A Cambridge Artworkman and his Firm (Casita Press, 2021) Shelley Lockwood describes how although Leach continued to work with William Morris and others, he also wanted to expand his business closer to home, and to tap into the growing interest in home decoration in Cambridge. In 1880 he opened a fashionable shop and showroom, to be run by his sister Isabella Simpson Leach, at 3 St Mary’s Passage in the centre of the town. It was an elegant shop that showcased the Leach firm’s finely crafted tiles, paperhangings, cabinetwork and picture frames; the ‘Leach Simpson’ business card pictured above gives an idea of the range of items for sale.

“Mr. Leach is a man who has a great deal of taste & people send all over England for him to do their houses.” Maud Darwin (UL, DAR 251: 778)

My upcoming online talk for the David Parr House is about the Leach firm’s domestic commissions in Cambridge in the 1880s and 1890s. I’ll explore the stories of some of the fascinating women behind Leach’s domestic commissions, including Maud Darwin (quoted above), Caroline Jebb, Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton. Louisa Greef, a Cambridge-born woman who ran a rival decorating business at the time will also feature. She took over Leach’s work at Newnham College, and put bids in for other ambitious commissions of the time, including decorating the Guildhall.

You can find out more about the Leach firm on the David Parr House website here.

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 agree, and believe that The Rector’s Daughter is nothing short of a masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in the Spring 2023 issue of Slightly Foxed.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved