I’ve had rather mixed success with George MacDonald. I found The Princess and the Goblin charming, Phantastes rather uneven, and begun but didn’t finish Alec Forbes of Howglen. So recently I decided to try another of his works, and embarked upon The Vicar’s Daughter.
The book, it soon turned out, was the third in a trilogy (preceded by Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood and The Seaboard Parish); but, happily, it worked perfectly well on its own, and I was never confused by not having read the earlier books.
The narrator, Winnie, is the daughter of a wealthy clergyman who lives in the countryside. She falls in love with and marries a poor, atheist artist, Percivale, who lives in London. An intriguing premise! She is persuaded by her husband and father to write about her life: her family, her husband, her children, her acquaintances and friends, all idiosyncratic and most slightly eccentric.
The first and last parts of the book are very enjoyable. We get to know the amusingly fallible and straightforward Winnie, the eccentric Percivale, Percivale’s Jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none younger brother Roger, the hapless cook Jemima, Winnie’s own ideological and very middle-class country family (& the adventure of the gypsy child they adopt), the snooty London rich relations, among others.
The book was almost spoiled for me, however, by Winne’s infatuation with a really very irritating character called Miss Marion Clare. Miss Clare is perhaps the most annoying character that you are supposed to like that I have come across! Winne remarks very wisely concerning writing about her husband ‘I should like much, before in my narrative approaching a certain hard season we had to encounter, to say a few words concerning my husband, if I only knew how. I find women differ much, both in the degree and manner in which their feelings will permit them to talk about their husbands. I have known women set a whole community against their husbands by the way in which they trumpeted their praises; and I have known one woman set everybody against herself by the way in which she published her husband’s faults. I find it difficult to believe either sort.’ She (or rather, MacDonald, of course!) steers well clear of this pitfall, and Percivale emerges as a likeable character as a result. Not so Miss Clare! The way Miss Clare’s praises are ‘trumpeted’ throughout the whole novel, and she is even described as ‘Saint Clare’, would be slightly nauseating even were she a more likeable character. As it is, she comes across as patronising, condescending, self-satisfied and arrogant, and, on top of all this, the reader is constantly expected to join in the narrator’s ceaseless eulogies of her. It is really too much! I almost gave up the novel in boredom and irritation, but just about managed to force myself through the Miss Clare-heavy middle of the book. Miss Clare’s personality is really summed up by her response to Roger falling in love with her. Roger is a talented, likeable, cheerful, well-intentioned young man (who, by largely avoiding the weight of the narrator’s praises largely avoids the reader’s dislike!). His feelings for Miss Clare certainly do her no dishonour, and one would expect a nice person, let alone a saintly person, to respond with humility and appreciation of his respect and affection, even if they did not care for him romantically and so felt they could not accept his courtship. Miss Clare’s response?
‘Of course, she couldn’t marry Roger. How could she marry a man she couldn’t look up to? And look up to him she certainly did not, and could not. “No, Roger,” she said, this last thought large in her mind; and, as she spoke, she withdrew her hands, “it mustn’t be. It is out of the question: I can’t look up to you,” she added, as simply as a child. “I should think not,” he burst out. “That would be a fine thing! If you looked up to a fellow like me, I think it would almost cure me of looking up to you; and what I want is to look up to you every day and all day long: only I can do that whether you let me or not.” “But I don’t choose to have a—a—friend to whom I can’t look up.” “Then I shall never be even a friend,” he returned sadly. “But I would have tried hard to be less unworthy of you.”‘
But let us move on from Miss Clare, lest, along with taking up far too much of the novel, she takes up far too much of my review! MacDonald’s ideology of gender and social relationships is sometimes odd but at other times appealing. Here are some of the appealing passages:
‘”They go to dinner-parties where there are ladies, and evening parties, too, without their wives.” “Whoever does that,” said Percivale, “has at least no right to complain that he is regarded as a Bohemian; for in accepting such invitations, he accepts insult, and himself insults his wife.” Nothing irritated my bear so much as to be asked to dinner without me. He would not even offer the shadow of a reason for declining the invitation.’
‘I told him the whole story of my adventure with Roger, and the reports Judy had prejudiced my judgment withal. He heard me through in silence, for it was a rule with him never to interrupt a narrator. He used to say, “You will generally get at more, and in a better fashion, if you let any narrative take its own devious course, without the interruption of requested explanations. By the time it is over, you will find the questions you wanted to ask mostly vanished.”‘
‘the peculiar misery of the poor in our large towns,—they have no hope, no impulse to look forward, nothing to expect; they live but in the present, and the dreariness of that soon shapes the whole atmosphere of their spirits to its own likeness. Perhaps the first thing one who would help them has to do is to aid the birth of some small vital hope in them; that is better than a thousand gifts, especially those of the ordinary kind, which mostly do harm, tending to keep them what they are,—a prey to present and importunate wants.’
‘Education is not a panacea for moral evils.’
MacDonald’s theology is – undoubtedly – rather strange! For example:
‘He [Winnie’s father – presented as a model clergyman] was not favorable to extempore prayer in public, or even in the family, and indeed had often seemed willing to omit prayers for what I could not always count sufficient reason: he had a horror at their getting to be a matter of course, and a form; for then, he said, they ceased to be worship at all, and were a mere pagan rite, better far left alone. I remember also he said, that those, however good they might be, who urged attention to the forms of religion, such as going to church and saying prayers, were, however innocently, just the prophets of Pharisaism’
And I cannot quite understand how he reconciled his universalist leanings (nor, indeed, his emphasis on free will and something almost like the Orthodox theosis) with his Calvinism. But he does present some very good apologias for Christianity (despite the fact that many of them come from the lips of the irritating Miss Clare!) and some very thought-provoking and interesting passages:
‘It is more absurd,” she said, “to trust God by halves, than it is not to believe in him at all.’
‘What a divine way of saving us it was,—to let her [the Virgin Mary, Mother of God] bear him [Jesus Christ], carry him in her bosom, wash him and dress him and nurse him and sing him to sleep,—offer him the adoration of mother’s love, misunderstand him, chide him, forgive him even for fancied wrong’
‘and when I return to the Father, inasmuch as ye do it to one of the least of these, ye do it unto me.” So all the world is henceforth the temple of God; its worship is ministration; the commonest service is divine service.’
‘It was a cold evening in the middle of November. The light, which had been scanty enough all day, had vanished in a thin penetrating fog. Round every lamp in the street was a colored halo; the gay shops gleamed like jewel-caverns of Aladdin hollowed out of the darkness; and the people that hurried or sauntered along looked inscrutable. Where could they live? Had they anybody to love them? Were their hearts quiet under their dingy cloaks and shabby coats? “Yes,” returned my father, to whom I had said something to this effect, “what would not one give for a peep into the mysteries of all these worlds that go crowding past us. If we could but see through the opaque husk of them, some would glitter and glow like diamond mines; others perhaps would look mere earthy holes; some of them forsaken quarries, with a great pool of stagnant water in the bottom; some like vast coal-pits of gloom, into which you dared not carry a lighted lamp for fear of explosion. Some would be mere lumber-rooms; others ill-arranged libraries, without a poets’ corner anywhere. But what a wealth of creation they show, and what infinite room for hope it affords!” “But don’t you think, papa, there may be something of worth lying even in the earth-pit, or at the bottom of the stagnant water in the forsaken quarry?” “Indeed I do; though I have met more than one in my lifetime concerning whom I felt compelled to say that it wanted keener eyes than mine to discover the hidden jewel. But then there are keener eyes than mine, for there are more loving eyes. Myself I have been able to see good very clearly where some could see none; and shall I doubt that God can see good where my mole-eyes can see none? Be sure of this, that, as he is keen-eyed for the evil in his creatures to destroy it, he would, if it were possible, be yet keener-eyed for the good to nourish and cherish it. If men would only side with the good that is in them,—will that the seed should grow and bring forth fruit!”‘
‘I think people are often ready to suppose that their bodily condition is the cause of their spiritual discomfort, when it may be only the occasion upon which some inward lack reveals itself. That the spiritual nature should be incapable of meeting and sustaining the body in its troubles is of itself sufficient to show that it is not in a satisfactory condition.’
‘But I have sometimes thought that perhaps God took pains to bar out such things of the sort as we should be no better for. The reason why Lazarus was not allowed to visit the brothers of Dives was, that the repentance he would have urged would not have followed, and they would have been only the worse in consequence.” “Admirably said,” remarked my father.’
The Vicar’s Daughter is a rather strange novel, and its shape and quality are so rather uneven I’m uncertain whether to recommend it or not. When I think of the better parts, I think “It’s such a charming and unusual book, of course I’d recommend it!” But when I think of the boring parts I think “Hmm, I’m not sure many people would enjoy this!” I’m not sure what to say, all in all, really! If, on balance, after reading this review, it appeals to you, give it a try and you’ll probably very much like parts of it at least. If you do read it, please do let me know what you thought of it 🙂