The Rector’s Wife: -was I really?

My first Joanna Trollope: I think I’d been deterred because she couldn’t possibly be as good an author as Anthony Trollope- and she isn’t. Interesting read all the same, picked up by Bud  for 50p at the Bromsberrow Heath village shop which also sells books and bits and pieces, while we were visiting family there.

The title of course was what caught his eye, as he has heard from me on the topic, occasionally, over the last forty years. The main character, the only one we really get to understand at all, is middle aged, with growing children and a husband who has been disappointed in hopes of advancement. Yes, it does sound like a possible plot for her illustrious namesake, Anthony. As my husband, though never being advanced in his Conference, was, as far as I can know, not bitter and frustrated (except by those never-ending church meetings) I didn’t share her feeling of being stuck. I was interested mostly in how the parish is portrayed in its expectations of her as clergy wife. It was hard to believe the setting was late 20th and not mid 19th century. It did not feel like the nineteen nineties.

Most women did not go out to work if they had small children when I was first a “clergy wife” though women with careers were more likely to- and many clergy wives, in California, already did. This has been one of the major shifts in the recent generation: one income used to suffice for housing and food etc, though nowadays many couples find one income is needed for the housing and the other for everything else. So I was surprised that it was so contentious in the plot here.

Also, most clergy in our Conference still lived, as does the family in this novel, in church housing. This too has changed. It is one of the elements of the story that rang true to me- the felt intrusiveness of living in the parishioners’ property, with color schemes, appliances and even furniture that they bought or approved. (Think beige.) Middle daughter complained that people looked right in to her bedroom window from the parking lot. And people dropped in and phoned at any hour. (Think the TV series “Rev.”) Our first phone answering machine was a gift to ME so the family could eat a meal uninterrupted! However, the trend to buy a house of the family’s own has become much stronger, intensified probably by the rise in housing prices and values which left us worried about retirement in a poky flat. But we finally sold our big private house and have about 300 square feet – by choice! Another story.

The feeling of clergy life, though, for me was not really what is portrayed in Trollope’s view. There are clergy husbands, careers. Clergy spouses are not regarded as part of the package the way they once were. As a member of a different denomination from my husband, involved in a different church community, I usually was appreciated for whatever I chose to take part in. Luckily, I loved being in the middle of children’s activities which I have to admit is still a popular default activity for a non-musical clergy partner.As far as my kids’ lives, I would have to let them write about growing up in a clergy family. It is different, as is being a military family, or a political, or show business or any of many families that leave less privacy and choice than might be wished for.

Bud and I have also spent so much of our lives together that we are called “half-a-brain” by family. And, though we are still of different denominations, which involves our background formation more than day to day life at this point, our faith has never varied a whole lot. Bud’s first impression of me was formed by my shelf of classical and Simon and Garfunkel music, and bibles in English Greek and Hebrew. I was a Catholic who loved the Bible and he was a Protestant who loved liturgy.

The Rector’s Wife is really interested in how the main character’s life will continue- with or without the embittered husband, with or without one of the improbable number of interested males in the village, with or without a career… Chick Lit, I’m afraid especially at the end. I am so ordinary. Not the stuff of novels. Life could have taken different roads at points I can think about and, I’m sure, at others of which I am oblivious.

It’s difficult to imagine being for example, an old nun in the UK. Or a retired classics teacher -probably out of a classics job thirty years ago, though my US granddaughter is now taking Latin in Uni! Or an underpaid part-time Junior College faculty retiree. This time of life, looking back and with family all around everywhere, is very fulfilling.


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