I’m very pleased that when I went to look for a book to read for Mary Hocking Reading Week I found ‘The Meeting Place’, her final novel, published in 1996. As I read I found much to love, much to admire, and a storyteller who had much to say.
The story opens as Clarice Mitchell, a sixty-nine year-old, retired head-teacher, was driving across country. to an isolated farmhouse where she was to rehearse a production of Pericles. She was thinking of the past, because, by chance, she was visiting the family home of her former head-mistress; the woman who had inspired her and made her want to become a teacher too.
Near her journey’s end, as the light faded, she was startled to see a woman in old -fashioned dress standing in open country, where there could surely be no reason for any woman to be.
“It was as if some unseen hand had thrown down an old painting in front of her; a woman standing in a rocky pool formed by a spring.”
But the woman disappears as suddenly as she appeared.
The next day, as two theatre companies rehearse in adjacent barns, Clarice sees another strange woman, in 15th century garb, pass through her rehearsal space. Others suggest that she was a member of the other theatre company, in her costume for their production of the crucible, but though Clarice nods in agreement she knows in her heart that she isn’t. And when she is troubled by dizzy spells she wonders if maybe the job she has taken on is too much for her.
She thinks more and more of the past, of difficulties she faced as a head teacher, of how they affected her relationships with the men in her life, and of how, maybe, she had been restricted because she was a woman.
She wonders about the women she saw, and their stories unfold alongside hers. One is set in the fifteen century, the other is set in the early years of the twentieth century, and though all three stories are distinctive they have similar themes, and they sit well together.
I wouldn’t call this a ghost story or a time-slip story though. It’s more subtle than that, and it’s a much more grown-up story than those descriptions suggest. I’d call it a story set in a place where there is much that is unchanged and timeless, and where the sensitive may perceive echoes of the past.
The smoothness and naturalness of Mary Hocking’s writing made it very easy to keep turning the pages. I’ve seen her compared with Elizabeth Taylor, and I can agree with that comparison, though I would say that Mary Hocking had a little more grit.
I saw a wonderful depth of understanding in all of the sides of the story, and an instinctive grasp of character. Clarice’s character was particularly well done. She was capable, she was intelligent, she was compassionate, and I really don’t think I have read a better portrayal of a woman of her age and generation.
My mother was a teacher of that same generation; she loved teaching and I can imagine them talking over the things that Clarice was remembering, because they were so very, very real.
The only slight weakness of this book, for me, was that the story was told at a certain distance. Mary Hocking presents her characters rather than engaging with them, and gives her writing a degree of coolness. I like a little more warmth, but she does so any things so very well that I will always pick up any of her books that I find.
The end of the story brought everything together, in a way that was sad but inevitable. I realised that it had been foreshadowed, but that I had been caught up with the story and the characters and those signs passed me by.
‘The Meeting Place’ is a wonderfully accomplished, intelligent novel; and I am sorry that it is out of print and that its author isn’t more widely recognised.