The Vicar's Daughter
The Vicar’s Daughter is a cautionary tale in which a young woman who is frustrated with her lot in life tries to engineer her way to a better situation and ends up causing pain and heartache for herself and those closest to her. Cassandra Wilton discovers that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions when she tries to help her older sister to make a match with a suitable young man but ends up losing her own heart in the process. It’s a readable enough story, but it moves quite slowly and the emphasis is more on Cassie and her personal growth than it is on the romance, which is, sadly, rather dull.
It was the epistolary nature of the story that induced me to pick up the book in the first place, as the synopsis tells how Cassie, frustrated at having to wait for her sister, Lenora, to find a husband before SHE can go out in society, embarks upon a correspondence with Mr. Evan Glenside in Lenora’s name, hoping that she can bring them together. Cassie is twenty and the youngest of the six daughters of the vicar of a rural Bedfordshire parish, and family tradition has always been that only one sister is “out” in society at any one time, meaning that the oldest had to marry before the next sister could make her début, and so on. The problem for Cassie is that Lenora is cripplingly shy and hates going to social events; and when she does go, she doesn’t dance with anyone or speak to anyone. At this rate, Lenora will never marry, and Cassie feels that life is passing her by – but her concerns are more or less ignored by her parents who insist she has to wait for ‘her turn’.
When Lenora returns home from a ball and tells her sister about the kind gentleman who lent her his handkerchief, Cassie realises that here is a chance to change things. Lenora did not know the man in question and Cassie realises it must have been Evan Glenside, who is new to the area. She hatches a plan for Lenora to see him again when their father makes his parish visit, but Lenora is too nervous and doesn’t accompany him. That’s when Cassie hits upon the idea of corresponding with Mr. Glenside in Lenora’s name. She won’t do it for long, she reasons, and she plans to tell all to Lenora at the appropriate time; but if she can just ‘introduce’ Lenora to Mr. Glenside and spark his interest, perhaps her sister won’t be so nervous the next time she meets him.
Evan worked in London as a clerk and lived in Mile End with his mother and sisters until the sudden deaths of a couple of distant relatives made him the heir to a considerable property and propelled him into the ranks of the landed gentry. He has recently moved to Bedfordshire in order to begin to learn about the estate he will inherit and to help his uncle to run it, but while his experience as a clerk has given him the necessary organisational and numerical skills to enable him to pick up the administrative side of being a landowner fairly easily, his background and upbringing as the son of a working man has not equipped him to be able to navigate the perilous waters of good society. But even he, with his patchy knowledge of what is done and not done, suspects that exchanging correspondence with a young, unmarried lady is not the done thing, yet he cannot be other than intrigued and captivated by Miss Lenora Wilton’s engaging and sympathetic manner. Before he really knows what is happening, he is engaged in a real correspondence with the lady, and feels he is coming to know her through her letters, even though in public, she is still extremely shy and reserved.
It’s going to come as no surprise to say that Cassie and Evan fall in love without his knowing the true identity of the young lady with whom he has been sharing his inmost thoughts and dreams. But truth will out, and when it does, both of them have to face the consequences of their actions even though, as Cassie readily admits, Evan was the innocent party. She hates to think that he and his mother and sisters will be the subject of gossip because of something she did, and makes a concerted effort on behalf of the ladies to ensure that they will be accepted by local society. This act is one of the first on Cassie’s journey towards a greater self-awareness and towards her understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness. It’s in this part of the story that she really begins to exhibit the personal growth I mentioned earlier, and it certainly does go a long way towards making her into a more likeable character than the somewhat impatient, selfish young woman she was at the beginning of the book. If The Vicar’s Daughter had been billed as one young woman’s ‘coming of age’ story, then Ms. Kilpack has done a very good job. But it’s not – the synopsis points toward this being a romance, and unfortunately, it’s sadly lacking in that area. For one thing, we’re asked to believe that Cassie and Evan have fallen in love through their correspondence, but there’s nothing in their letters to suggest that they are doing anything more than becoming friends. And for another, they don’t spend a lot of time together in the first half of the book, and in the second half, their interactions are practically non-existent. We’re told they’re in love, we’re told they’re yearning for each other, but I didn’t feel any of it. There’s no chemistry and no real emotional connection between them, and while Evan’s situation as a working class man who has suddenly been elevated to a completely different station in life is intriguing and handled quite well, he’s otherwise little more than a cypher whose presence in the novel is designed to kick-start the heroine’s journey of self-discovery.
I was also bothered by the fact that I have no idea when this story is supposed to take place. I’m assuming, given the references to the conventions and social mores of the day that the story is set some time in the 19th century, but other than that, I have no clue. At one point, a lady is said to be playing piano pieces by Tchaikovsky (who was born in 1840), yet later, another lady refers to Franz Schubert as a “new” composer. He was born in 1797 and died in 1828. Unless one of them had a time machine, then I’m stumped. And honestly – how hard is it to look these things up?!
I didn’t actively dislike reading The Vicar’s Daughter, and I did become engaged with Cassie’s predicament and invested in the final outcome, but I can’t recommend the book as a romance. I should also point out that given that the heroine is the daughter of a vicar, there are some Christian messages within the tale as Cassie ponders the nature of repentance and forgiveness, but these are not heavy-handed or obtrusive. If you enjoy stories which focus more on the heroine’s personal growth than on her personal relationships, then you might like this book. But if you’re looking for a well-developed and emotionally satisfying romance, then I don’t think it’s for you.