It’s 1860, and Richard Allen, still mourning the death of his father, has just arrived in the small town of Hereford to begin his work as curate for the local parish. Although he misses his mother and two sisters, he settles quickly into his new home and comes to care deeply about the people around him. But in the case of the elderly vicar’s young wife, Susannah, Richard cares too deeply, and the love that he feels—and that she returns—unsettles him and leaves him wondering about his future in the parish and in the church.
This novel by Sue Gee could easily have gone wrong. It’s historical fiction about people whose views about love and faith and truth are different from views commonly espoused today. It’s the kind of plot in which you might expect to see harsh traditionalists pitted against compassionate rebels, where right and wrong are perfectly clear and where progress equals morality. But although Gee certainly shows how harsh Victorian morality you could be, she avoids treating those with traditional views as monsters. What we see in this novel is a world in transition, filled with people who are trying to figure out what these changes mean. There are hypocrites and monsters in this world, but they don’t dominate the story. Instead, Gee gives us delicate renderings of people who are bewildered that life isn’t as tidy as they expect it to be. It’s a story of growing up, and it could be set in just about any period, but the Victorian era is particularly fruitful for the ideas Gee is exploring.
One crucial moment that happens early in the novel brings out this idea of transition. During his first visit to the vicar, Oliver Bowen, Richard picks up and reads part of a highly critical review of Charles Darwin’s recently published On the Origin of the Species. Oliver Bowen expresses scorn for Darwin’s ideas, but Richard does not yet know what he thinks, so he lets the topic slide. For Richard is not someone to dismiss new ideas out-of-hand, but neither is he going to abandon old ideas without struggle. He himself is in transition, just as society is.
Richard attempts to write sermons that will get at the truth of Christ’s teachings and challenge the parish to show compassion, and many in the congregation respond well, but there’s just enough criticism to create doubt about his own faith:
And did doubt and heresy spring from the same source, like a polluted stream? Had he really, in his sermon, come so close to something outside his own Church, something which might offend his congregation?
He had been asking himself this all week; it seemed, indeed, that where he should be calm and still, filled with the anticipation of Christ’s birth, he was churned up by a storm of questions: about the world, but also about himself.
Richard’s feelings for Susannah complicate this struggle with faith, for he never expected that he would fall in such passionate love with someone so obviously inappropriate according to all the rules of society. He hardly understands himself anymore. How can he consider himself a man of God when he fantasizes about a married woman?
Here, again, is an area where I feared the book would go badly wrong, but this is no story of love conquering all. Richard and Susannah do love each other, and it’s easy to see why they feel so well suited to each other. If she weren’t married, this would be an excellent match. But her marriage vows are treated as a serious thing, and her marriage, while not a love match, is not a bad one for its time. Oliver has treated Susannah well, and she’s had no cause for complaint. She’s been given security and love, and she even seems to feel a sort of love for Oliver. Oliver, while old-fashioned and sometimes severe, is not a bad man. He is on one side of a painful transition, while Richard is one the other. One of the most painful scenes in the book comes when Richard, normally the compassionate and understanding one, finally speaks up and says what he really thinks about God and faith at a time when Oliver is particularly vulnerable, and you can see just how difficult change can be.
Another area where Gee impressed me is in her depiction of the period. So much historical fiction is filled with details that seem to serve little purpose other than to show the author has done some research and to keep alerting readers to the fact that the book is about a different time. The characters are altogether different from us—and aren’t we glad to have moved on to a world with indoor plumbing and equal rights? The historical details are sufficient to give readers a sense of the time, they aren’t overwhelming. And although the story couldn’t really be set in the present day because the struggles wouldn’t carry the same weight, I did at times forget I was reading about another time. Gee writes in such a way that the characters’ dilemmas feel universal, even as they’re specific to their time.
Because the book focuses on people’s internal struggles, the story moves slowly. For most of the book, not much actually happens. Richard lives his day-to-day life, appearing calm as his soul is churning underneath. However, when the crisis breaks, the story moves too quickly. Major life-changing events happen in the space of only a few chapters. The ending itself is about what I would have wanted, but after the slow simmer of the first three-quarters of the book, it was startling to have everything boil over all at once.
This book was published in 2004 and nominated for the Orange Prize, but it seems since then to have disappeared. It doesn’t even appear to have been published in the U.S. The only blog reviews of it that I found were at She Reads Novels, A Work in Progress, and Cornflower Books, and while not all of these reviews were positive, no one seemed to think it was outright terrible. I find the vagaries of publishing so mysterious. Mediocre books continue to get read for years, and good ones vanish almost as soon as they’re published. You’d think a prize nomination might keep a book around for a while, but not necessarily. This fact reminds me of how helpful it is when bloggers write about less well-known books. One by one, we can keep interest in a book alive.