Author: Sue Gee, 2004.
Genre: Historical Fiction. England 1860s. Relationship Drama. Religion.
Other Details: Hardback. 342 pages.
It's the winter of1860 when Richard Allen, a young curate, travels to a small hamlet outside Hereford to take up his first position. It's in this quiet place of wind and trees, birds and water that Richard is to fall passionately in love - but he cannot find fulfilment, for his lover is Susannah Beddoes, the wife of the vicar of his new parish. As Richard's feelings challenge him to his core, he develops a strange relationship with another woman, the solitary and eccentric Edith Clare. Against the backdrop of immense social and industrial change, the consequences of Richard and Susannah's affair are dramatic as they - as well as Oliver Beddoes - grapple with doubt and what it means to lose faith when the great certainties are in question. And throughout it all, the crossing-keeper's daughter Alice Birley - an observer of incidents and events she does not fully understand - has her own part to play... - synopsis from UK publisher's website.
I found this a beautifully written story about a young curate and his forbidden love for the wife of his senior colleague. In it Susan Gee does not bow to modern sensibilities but examines what such a love would mean to these individuals and the environment in which they live. I read it in a single day as it was due to be discussed at a reading group meeting though I rather wish that I had given myself more time to appreciate its graceful pace.
Sue Gee evokes her rural setting and the passing of the seasons in the early 1860s with great skill. There are also musings about religion as Richard comes to address his faith. Of course the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species the previous year is making its impact, though it is only one aspect of his questioning.
Another reviewer on Goodreads remarked on its feminist themes, which are certainly present though understated. At one point Susannah says to Richard: "sometimes I have thought I can hardly bear to be a woman.". When he protests she continues: "I am a woman - I must do nothing. Women must suffer, women must wait, women must follow, must be quiet and good, must never say what we feel". A powerful sentiment, which is reflected by the lack of power experienced by a number of women in the novel.
I found it a bitter sweet story though I am glad it was selected for the group as I would never have picked it up otherwise. However, I seemed to be alone in enjoying it as it wasn't to the taste of my fellow reading group members who complained about its slow pace and literary style. I offered my opinion that Susan Gee was seeking to evoke the atmosphere of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, a novel that is mentioned favourably by Susannah in the narrative.