The Rector’s Wife is a very apt title for Trollope’s novel since she explores exactly what it means to be married to a priest and therefore tied to the expectations of both the Church and the local community. Anna Bouverie has been married to Peter, the vicar of Loxford, for many years. She has dutifully tried her best to please both him and his parish by delivering magazines, making cakes and living according to their exacting expectations.
The Need For Change
When their daughter, Flora, is bullied at school Anna decides that she has had enough. She wants to send Flora to a private school and knows that they can’t afford this on Peter’s pitiful salary. Without consulting her husband she takes a job, at a local supermarket, in order to support her daughter. Once she applies for this job she realizes that it offers her new opportunities and fresh perspectives on life. Anna enjoys establishing her own identity, beyond the Church. This changes her so much that she is unwilling to give up her supermarket work even though the private school agree to offer Flora a scholarship.
Scandal in the Community
Joanna Trollope shows her readers how many of the Loxford people are scandalised by Anna’s bid for independence. Their shock and sense of outrage reflects the themes of her novel A Village Affair and shows Trollope’s understanding of how one individual and their actions can create a huge impact in a close-knit community.
In this novel most of the church members believe that working in a supermarket is an unsuitable role for a rector’s wife and that Anna’s new job reflects badly on Peter. The parish ladies suggest that Anna must be under stress and step in to help her with various church tasks. Their actions further infuriate Anna because, unlike her, these women seem to dote on her husband, Peter.
A Break Down in Communications
Communications between Anna and Peter break down due to his disapproval of her supermarket job and because of his bitter disappointment at not being promoted to the role of rural dean. The new dean, Daniel Byrne, is a man of greater understanding and wider vision than Peter. Anna is drawn to him because she feels that Daniel understands some of her problems and she begins to confide in both him and his brother, Jonathan.
Jonathan Byrne is very attracted to Anna and he seems to understand her plight. He feels that her husband does not appreciate her. Anna is drawn towards Jonathan because of his skills of perception and sympathy. They begin a love affair, which shows her, once more, that change is possible. Jonathan wants Anna to divorce Peter and marry him but she is tired of being a wife. She longs to break free and start to discover herself.
The Church and The Individual
In The Rector’s Wife Trollope explores the characters of individuals within the Church establishment. She shows how their personal needs are sometimes at conflict with their duties as religious figures. Whilst Peter appears to be dedicated to his parish he is really filled with jealousy and bitterness because he was not promoted to the role of rural Dean. Anna, on the other hand, feels that the Church has held her back from expressing herself fully. Trollope explores similar themes in another novel, The Choir, where church figures come into conflict with each other, but, in this novel she examines Anna’s individual plight and leaves reader’s to question whether such a bid for freedom was wrong or right.