Mary Jocelyn's life is not what one would call exciting by any standard. In The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor, Mary lives a quiet country life caring for her disabled sister and aging father, the county rector. Canon Jocelyn was a handsome man in his day, not to mention brilliant, and still retains vestiges of his younger appearance and every shred of his mental faculties. Mary, on the other hand, has always been plain. As a middle-aged spinster, this is more true than ever. She did inherit her father's intelligence, but could not sharpen her wits to the same degree because of the lack of an established women's education system. Still, her smarts are enough to set her up as a oddity to the villagers surrounding her. Her father is by no means an affectionate man and her mother died when she was very young - as a result, Mary's always been alone. However, she's never really minded solitude. She passes her days in a kind of empty contentment, and she's perfectly fine with it. All of that changes, though, when the new parson moves to town. Robert Herbert was an attractive man in his day, but has devolved into plainness with age. To make up for this, nature has blessed him with a heavy helping of brains, and he's just the man to befriend the finicky Canon Jocelyn. Along the way, he gets to know the reserved Mary, and sees something in her that no one has ever noticed before - a certain spark of fiery passion that burns deep within her eyes. Unfortunately, just as the two begin to fall into a love worthy of the ages, fate and human stupidity intervene, sending their love story down an unexpected path filled with roller coaster vignettes of greatest ecstasy and lowest despair.
The writing style of this novel is clearly a throwback to the greats of the female literary tradition - Jane Austen and the Brontës. The story even alludes to their great heroes, such as Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. However, in plot, this story is really nothing like those that came before it, with the possible exception of Wuthering Heights. Readers will definitely pity and sympathize with Mary, but the extent to which she allows herself to be walked on is sometimes frustrating, and Mr. Herbert is by no definition a second coming of Mr. Darcy. He is an inconstant man, unworthy of the kind and gentle heroine. For readers desiring the classic love story, this is not the place to look. However, this novel has much to offer in other areas. Mary's relationship with her father, the inscrutable Canon Jocelyn, is fascinatingly complex. The highs and lows of their life together is sometimes wonderful and sometimes beautifully painful to watch. Mary's solo adventures are also masterfully developed, evoking both the uncertainty of coming into one's own and the change in the world order that was taking place at the time - a movement from old world morality to modern liberty, two worlds which Mary finds herself trying to navigate simultaneously. Even her strange relationship with Mr. Herbert lends to this effect. The passion he stirs within her previously dormant breast changes her and her life forever, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. This novel is a study in human nature and will often take readers by surprise with its unexpected twists and turns. It sometimes feels as though the reader is being held at arm's length, but this style works well towards rousing the same murky feelings in the reader that reside within Mary's own heart.