Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Perpetual Curate – Mrs Oliphant

Excepting eating and sleeping all of Easter weekend that I didn’t spend at work was devoted to ‘The Perpetual Curate’ in a combination of enjoyment and determination I managed to work through its 540 pages in a mere two and a half days (and make scones to sustain myself through this marathon read). The result is that I’m more enamoured than ever with Mrs Oliphant and have thrown myself straight into the final Carlingford Chronicle (Phoebe Junior) with only a slight sense of panic about where my next fix will come from.

Wuthering Expectations wrote at length about both ‘The Perpetual Curate’ and Oliphant last year – posts I keep going back to as I put my own thoughts about this particular book in order. Other Stories has also written enthusiastically about Oliphant, I hope more voices will join the chorus of definite enthusiasm for her work because she more than deserves another revival. Virago reissued the Carlingford novels in the 1980’s and its these that I’ve been working my way through, but considering that she wrote over 90 books of which the six and a half I’ve read are admirable it seems inexplicable that so few are in print or affordable (or for that matter available as ebooks). It’s quite likely that a good few of those 90+ are duffs but equally likely that a goodly percentage are Carlingford quality (which is excellent).

‘The Perpetual Curate’ is the first chronicle I’ve read that doesn’t focus truly around women. Even ‘Salem Chapel’ which was ostensibly about dissenting minister Arthur Vincent felt like it was actually all about the ladies. The perpetual curate in question – Frank Wentworth – has already made appearances in all the proceeding books, most notably ‘The Rector’ where as a very young man he shows himself to be the more able priest than the titular Rector who retires leaving him in undisputed if temporary possession of the field.

Arthur Hughes The Long Engagement

We pick up the action with the arrival of Mr Proctor’s successor in Carlingford starts to settle in. Mr Morgan is another middle aged clergyman who’s spent his youth in academia waiting for a chance to get out in the world and earn enough to marry, Mrs Morgan has had to wait ten long years for that particular honour and we find her trying to reconcile her dreams of married life with its realities – specifically in relation to a very unsatisfactory carpet.

Wentworth is an excellent priest, decorously in love with the charming and capable Lucy Wodehouse, intent on good works and not without expectations. In the interests of the plot though Wentworth is also distressingly High church and convinced that his principles allow for no compromise. The living that’s earmarked for him is in the gift of his aunts – evangelically Low Church ladies who cannot reconcile their nephew’s love of lilies on the Easter alter with their vision of what a good preacher should be.

The appearance of his aunts is only the beginning of young Frank’s troubles. He’s also at odds with Mr Morgan for setting up a mission on the man’s very doorstep and then there’s young Rosa Elsworthy the newsagent’s distractingly pretty niece. In short a sea of troubles that threaten to separate Frank from any chance of happiness with Lucy.

To add to these difficulties there is also a roguish older brother Jack, and a saintly but perhaps more troublesome brother Gerald. Gerald has turned to the Catholic Church in a breathtaking display of selfishness he declares he wants to remain as a priest – despite being married with 5 children and another on the way. His change in religion leaves him without an income and threatens to leave his wife not only without any material support but also without any status – not even that of a widow.

Hughes - April Love

But I digress. The real source of Franks problems are Rosa, she’s a forward little thing and has been lurking in the curates garden to flirt with a fellow lodger, but rumour links her name with the handsome young clergyman so when she disappears one night it’s at Franks door that the uncle knocks demanding justice and matrimony. Five years of blameless virtue are as nothing compared to the power of gossip especially with an enemy like Mr Morgan snapping at one’s heels and Frank finds his reputation literally on trial.

And that’s only a fraction of what goes on. In ‘The Perpetual Curate’ more than anywhere else so far Oliphant not only compares to Trollope, but in my loosely informed opinion exceeds him. The Carlingford Chronicles are clearly a response to the Barchester novels – I don’t know if they would be half so good if Barchester didn’t exist to be improved upon and refined, but it did, and she does. Her characters, especially the women are real creatures of flesh and blood, the situations they find themselves in are more mundane perhaps but they too are eminently believable and more than that every page breaths experience.


  1. You've inspired me to get some Oliphant off the shelf! I'm going to start with Mrs Blencarrow as it's been a while since I read a Persephone. I also have the Rector & the Doctor's Family on the tbr shelves. Wouldn't it be great if Virago or anyone reprinted these?

  2. What a charming review (and I'm very impressed by your marathon read!). I still haven't read any Mrs Oliphant, but I feel she's an author I'd definitely enjoy.

  3. Sigh...Mrs O just doesn't do it for me, as she requires SO much effort. Maybe I am just lazy, or lacking in a good gluten free scone recipe...

  4. Lyn - Mrs Blencarrow is a good place to start - I think I'm on safe ground when I say I think you'll enjoy her. Stopping has proved harder and I can see myself 'Doing an Elaine' ;)

    Skirmish of Wit - I've loved the ones I've read so far, they take a bit of time but feel suitably rewarding. The Carlingford books get better as I've gone on and despite the length are books I imagine re reading

  5. Verity - you might get your Mrs O moment with Miss Marjoriebanks. I think it's the time required more than the effort that sometimes makes these books off putting but I honestly believe she's worth perservering with in your case.

    I'm reading the last Carlingford Chronicle at the moment and have just made more scones (they're cooling as I type) so maybe a good glutten free version would help. She does seem to require scones and tea;)

  6. Two and a half days - what a pace!

    I read something - not Penelope Fitzgerald's outstanding introductions, but something else - that suggested that the Oliphant duds are concentrated in the pre-Oliphant books. It's those Fitzgerald intros, by the way, that really got me going with Oliphant. They are strongly recommended.

    Very glad my Oliphant pieces were helpful. They were fun to write, but Oliphant was of course such an enjoyable discovery.

  7. Amateur Reader, she is an enjoyable discovery eminantly satisfying to read, I am a convert to the AROW method and hope to track down more resonably priced books. I'm surprised she's not more popular not least because the Carlingford books seem such an obvious sunday night telly fit.

  8. The AROW technique, although controversial, gives some insights into Oliphant that I suspect are otherwise unavailable.

    What did I say above? "The pre-Oliphant books"? What gibberish. I meant the "pre-Carlingford" books!