Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Minister's Daughter

Jill at My Individual Take mentioned blogging about Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter (one of our book group's selections), motivating me to write my thoughts, too.

The book in brief: In 1645 England, a minister's daughter schemes to conceal the truth about her pregnancy by attributing it to witchcraft, implicating the village healer and her young granddaughter.

Notable plot or structural elements: The narrative employs two perspectives: the first is that of the minister's other daughter, manipulated by her pregnant sister and telling their part of the story almost 50 years later; the second is an omniscient narrator, primarily focused on the healing woman and her granddaughter Nell. The majority of the book is told from the latter point-of-view and thus frequently shows the consequences of the daughters' actions. The omniscient narrator also allows the introduction of the fantastic, another element that sets the book apart, for this is a Britain where piskies and fair folk really do roam the countryside and the human inhabitants either ignore, deny, or accommodate them.

Random thoughts (partly inspired by and probably incorporating ideas from the group's discussion): During the book discussion, someone questioned the rationale behind blending fantasy with history. Pondering that made me aware of how much of the book is about perception -- about how one's understanding of the world changes according to what one sees or does not see (deliberately or otherwise): in other words, the same attitudes the inhabitants exhibit toward the resident piskies.

The concept even extends to interpreting the book's title, The Minister's Daughter. Which daughter? Is it Grace, the perpetual deceiver, and is this then a tale of the ills wrought by those who lie for their own gain and about the falseness of appearance? Or is it Patience, the sister who slowly perceives the truth, and whose discovery of her own gullibility (and misperception) taints the rest of her life and poisons her feelings for her sibling? Even the British title, The Merrybegot, contains the same type of referential ambiguity: looked at one way, it's the story of Nell, a Merrybegot; shift the focus and it's about Grace's pregnancy, for her unborn child is also a Merrybegot. (Additionally, a crucial plot point rests on Patience's misunderstanding of a reference to a Merrybegot -- and Grace's recognition of same and use of the truth to aid her deception.)

Almost every major event involves perception, misunderstanding, and/or deception (and the characters most frequently guilty of the latter two are the minister and his daughters). It would be interesting to graph the major characters' actions in this light. Patience, as noted before, moves from generally mis-perceiving situations to understanding; in the other household, Nell's granny follows an opposite path, from clarity toward oblivion.

As mentioned, the novel employs a dual perspective, and it's the omniscient narrator who -- while pinning the book firmly to history through the introduction of real figures such as Matthew Hopkins and Charles II -- also suggests that with a little tweaking our perception of history might be able to incorporate a little enchantment, just a few piskies who might be there or might merely be a trick of the eye.

And, of course, locating the story in the 1640s extends the idea of the importance of perception to the world beyond the novel -- the witchhunts, where being viewed as a witch could mean life or death, and the struggle between competing politics and religious beliefs, again strife caused by differing perceptions about worship, divinity, and kings.

There's a telling moment early in the story where the church (now under the control of the new, rigidly Puritan minister) is described. The two paragraphs not only accentuate items concerned with seeing but also twice introduce the concept of changing perceptions through the use of religious trappings:

"Nearly everyone remembers when there was stained glass in the church window, all lit up on sunny days, like little bits of heaven. There was an altar, too, with a statue of the Virgin Mary, a tall candle always burning, and niches where folk could leave roses, or apples, or locks of hair from a sickly child in need of the Lady's blessing. None of those things are here anymore. They were papist trappings, according to the minister, and no great loss to anyone. There is a plain table now where the altar used to be and nothing at all in the windows except a rectangular view of the heavens themselves, be they cloudy, fair, or bucketing rain.

"No one knows what has happened to the beautiful statue of Mary. Some claim it was rescued, under cover of darkness, and is standing, still, in some private chapel or secret chamber. Others will tell you it was carted deep into the wood and thrown among brambles, where it lies, facedown, weeping bright blue tears. But those who understand the way of the world say it got smashed to smithereens with a mallet."

This, in turn, suggests further questions about religion -- is it based primarily on perception: on whether one sees the Virgin Mary, the bare altar, or the piskies as truth? Is it a matter of where one looks, what one looks for? The book evades deeper exploration of these issues; perhaps the closest it comes is in the positive depiction of wiccan precepts. Although some members of the group saw it as critical of the church or Christianity, others felt that it favored tolerance -- an openness to multiple perspectives.

(That seems an awkward place to end the commentary, but if I don't stop now, I'll never finish Possession by the end of December...)

Addenda Jill's just added her take on the book, with an interesting critique and several informative links.


Blogger Jill said...

Didi -- As always, you see so much more than I do. I promise that I will get my review of The Minister's Daughter up before the New Year.

By the way, in my own numble opinion, Possession is a wonderful book, one that I've read multiple times. I'll really be interested in your thoughts on it.

7:57 AM  

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