‘The Perpetual Curate’ should be followed by ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ which was actually my first encounter with Oliphant. I read it not long before I started blogging and wrote about it not long after but the details are a now a little hazy. I remember thinking it was a great book, and being reminded strongly of Austen’s ‘Emma’. Since then I’ve reacquainted myself with Wilkie Collins, discovered Mary Elizabeth Braddon and read Mrs Henry Wood’s ‘East Lynne’. I’ve also started my own personal Trollope odyssey, read a few dozen short stories by Dickens and his friends and flirted with Sir Walter Scott and Maria Edgeworth (strictly speaking from a somewhat earlier period but Oliphant mentions both of them so I think they’re relevant).
In short I’m beginning to get an idea of how much I don’t know about Victorian fiction. I did think about re reading ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ as part of this visit to Carlingford but decided against it, partly because it’s a longish book and I have other priorities for my time at the moment and partly because some of those priorities are to read a few more of Oliphant’s contemporaries; when I go back to ‘Miss Marjoriebanks’ I want it to be with a solid basis for evaluation.
In my last post I said I thought Oliphant exceeded Trollope – I’ve read about six books from each author and as they were both prolific that’s a small sample but so far Carlingford has the edge on Barchester and I think this is because of the way that Oliphant tackles her word count. Both had to turn in enough material to satisfy magazine commitments and fill three volume novels, but where Trollope seems to get bogged down in endless and eventually tedious repetition of the same point Oliphant introduces sub plots and running themes – or at least she does after ‘Salem Chapel’ which relies a little too heavily on sensationalism and blatant stalling.
One of the things that make ‘The Perpetual Curate’ such a delight is Mrs Morgan’s carpet. It’s introduced to proceedings again and again, and each time more effectively. Mrs Morgan has waited ten long years to become a wife, a wait that she’s increasingly aware of as time wasted. The man she made an idol of has proved to have feet of clay, her youth has gone and with it much of her beauty and for what? For a carpet that she cannot abide (see Wuthering Expectations opinions on the carpet as that’s where I started off on this track) and life with a man who has grown stubborn and set in his ways. Not by any means a bad man, possibly a man who is more lovable for his imperfections, but there is an undeniable feeling that Mrs Morgan’s happiness is destined to centre as much on her horticultural efforts as it is on her husband, and frustrations that youth may have shrugged off weigh heavily on her shoulders. The carpet is a symbol of all that’s imperfect, all the things not worth waiting for, and all the reasons not to wait – a visible reminder that patience isn’t always rewarded as it should be which is another theme that runs throughout the book.
The other very visible and equally tasteless encumbrance to Mrs Morgan’s domestic bliss is her husband’s curate. A man who will persist in calling at dinner time, especially when his favourite All Souls Pudding is on the menu (I admit to speculating about what this could possibly be – and have settled for imagining a sort of Cabinet Pudding as described here). It has to be admitted that the curate is a trying individual who checks all Mrs Morgan’s efforts to snub him by blandly ignoring them, thinking that by doing so he is doing his rector the favour of passing over the fact of his wife’s bad temper.
Whilst reading the carpet and curate interludes feel like comic relief but right at the end all these petty frustrations are put to use to make the final outcome of the novel ring true. Other sub plots and teasers such as Gerald’s defection to Rome, or Jack’s delinquency are made use of to provoke the reader into a state of moral indignation which is a far more effective page turner than the romance between Frank and Lucy which will inevitably come out alright despite the threat posed by Rosa Elsworthy.
What fascinates me about the carpet though is this – Frank is blessed with many siblings (I estimate the squire has produced about 20 children) and to make use of a few to throw in some topical moral preoccupations for debate is the work of a moment, but to sustain Mrs Morgan throughout the book as she does feels like the hand of genius at work and so I will give the last word to Mrs Morgan herself:
“...and such a vision of a perfect carpet for a drawing room – something softer and more exquisite than ever came out of mortal loom; full of repose and tranquillity, yet not without seducing beauties of design...flashed upon the imagination of the Rector’s wife. It would be sweet to have a house of one’s own arranging, where everything would be in harmony; and though this sweetness was very secondary to the other satisfaction of having a husband who was not a clay idol, but really deserved his pedestal, it yet supplemented the larger delight, and rounded off all the corners of Mrs Morgan’s present desires.”