The novel’s situation (a clergyman’s three lonely daughters living on the English moors) and its theme (the evils caused by sexual repression and self-abnegation) were suggested by the lives of the three Bronte sisters—Anne, Charlotte, and Emily—whose novels May Sinclair admired. The action covers a ten-year period in the little village of Garth and its environs, in which the only major events are the natural ones: birth, marriage, disease, and death. The story of a thwarted love affair is absorbing in itself, but the real focus is the psychoanalysis of the characters.
The atmosphere of the vicarage is oppressive and boring. The Vicar is a tyrant who unconsciously punishes his daughters out of frustration over his own situation (his wife has left him, thus “condemn[ing] him to a celibacy for which . . . he was utterly unsuited”). He does not allow them to marry or to leave his house. The stagnation brought about by the Vicar’s egotism is vividly shown in the opening and closing scenes of the novel as the household drags out the time until family prayers. Evening prayers are an enforced ritual which satisfies the Vicar’s lust for power.
Mary, the eldest daughter, is his favorite because she is submissive and therefore “good.” Alice, the youngest, disgusts him because of her strong sexual need; indeed, he persuades himself that he has sacrificed his career by moving to a remote parish where his daughter will not be tempted by young men. It is the middle daughter, Gwenda, however, of whom he is afraid; she stands up to him and tells him the truth, which he does not want to hear. Her fearless nature and mystic love of the moors vaguely suggest the figure of Emily Bronte.
All three daughters fall in love with the only available bachelor, Dr. Steven Rowcliffe. Alice, continually badgered by her father, falls dangerously ill. Steven diagnoses the problem as a case of hysteria. Although he is compassionate, he is repulsed by her attraction to him; he...
(The entire section is 818 words.)