Bleak beauty: an exquisite study of pain, loss, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, all overridden by duty. A few aspects of the plot are a little contrived and I was never quite convinced by the character of Kathy, but the emotion is raw enough to justify these minor flaws.
Mary is in her mid 30s and living a lonely but useful life with her father (a canon in the Church of England) in a dull East Anglian village, between the wars. Her life is marked by loss from childhood onwards and she is generally "crushed by the invincible force of her father's inaction". Her father is fond of her, but unable to express it, in part because he is disappointed in and confused by her, and he is unaware of the hurt his thoughtless put-downs cause. Another time her father "grieved for her, but doing as he would be done by, he let fall no word of sympathy". For a while she funnels her love into her learning-disabled sister, "finding something to treasure in what others shunned", but the sister dies. She devotes herself to parish duties; she "attracted confidences, particularly sad ones".
There are fleeting glimpses of opportunities, but people, circumstances and Mary's own inhibitions conspire to prevent anything coming of them. She meets a man, but is "too humble to be repelled by his dullness". Love comes from another quarter, but it's a perilous path and she feels so guilty for such an incredibly minor transgression that she feels outcast from her religion. "She was exalted in ecstasy, but... with duty paramount her ecstasy took the form of good resolutions."
There are some wittier insights too, such as "Dora came from the section of the middle class which is so good and kind it CAN NOT be rude (Mary came from the section above it, which CAN)"; the fact that shy people make the best hosts because they dislike being left out, and wishing to live in London "where sympathy was not so omnipresent".
"On the whole she was happy", despite "her sad past, from which she refused to be free" and the book is similarly sad but captivating.