I’m not sure how I had never discovered Mary Hocking before now. She published twenty-four novels before she died in 2014, but somehow she didn’t cross my path until a friend gave me her second-hand paperback copy of A Particular Place.
I shall certainly search out Hocking’s other novels because I enjoyed A Particular Place, but I must be honest: I think I enjoyed the novel because Hocking reminded me of other writers that I enjoy. Barbara Pym came to mind immediately and Pamela Hansford Johnson. In A Particular Place, there is a sense of what I can only describe as “Englishness,” an “Englishness” that has probably passed from England today.
Hocking captures the atmosphere of small town life especially the life of an Anglican parish at a time of change in the Church of England, which in 1989 was still not ordaining women. At the heart of the novel is Hocking’s examination of different kinds of love, and of pervasive loneliness, especially the loneliness experienced by those who don’t actually live alone.
In her presentation of the relationship between the new vicar of St. Hilary’s, Michael Hoath, and his wife Valentine, Hocking captures well the almost stereotypical situation of the vicar and his wife: she, always somewhat in the background; he, often surrounded by women in need in various ways. Hocking is not the only one to draw attention to this situation. Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife (1992) comes to mind. As I once heard a male cleric remark, “God calls the man; it doesn’t mean he calls the wife and family as well.” The stage of a parish church is perhaps a small stage, but there is, nevertheless, not much room for more than one performer in the parochial spotlight. The wife is always secondary, often somewhat alone, defined by her role as Vicar’s Wife. Despite her skills as an amateur actress, Valentine finds her role as Michael’s wife more than challenging.
It is no easier really for Michael who must in so many ways be so many things to so many people. Who is there for him? For a brief moment, he experiences an intense love with Norah, a woman unhappily married to someone else, but that affair ends almost before it begins with Norah’s sudden death.
Hocking’s third person point of view allows her to develop her supporting characters, such as Michael’s Aunt Hester, the selfish Hesketh Kendall, or Desmond who dreams of being an anthropologist. Her characters reveal themselves through their actions and what they say. Her manipulation of free indirect discourse also allows her to reveal character concisely, and the novel, though fluent even lyrical at times, remains tightly crafted, even constrained, which makes sense given that Hocking is writing about the small tightly woven community that is a parish. It is also very much a novel of its time. The events play out against the background of late 1980s concerns: Thatcherism, the role of women in society and in the Church.
So why, I wonder, had I somehow missed meeting Mary Hocking until now. Because she isn’t as experimental as A. S. Byatt perhaps, or because she didn’t make the university reading lists that were dominated by male writers. Because, at least in this novel, she deals with the nature of sin and repentance.
Hocking’s strengths in the novel lie in her ability to capture how the most intense personal dramas can be experienced quietly, privately, even decorously. Her writing is taut, the sparse, detailed lines of a pen and ink drawing rather than the wide brush strokes of an expansive painting, but in this quiet detail Hocking celebrates the human capacity to begin again, to endure, and to care.
The photos are of Chiddingstone Church in Kent. Hocking’s novel is actually set in the West Country.