Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family – Mrs Oliphant

Not one book but two novellas. I fell on Mrs Oliphant quite by accident a couple of years ago after spending half an hour scouring the classics section in Waterstones Nottingham for books by women. It ended up being a toss up between ‘Miss Marjoriebanks’ and ‘The Female Quixote’ (Charlotte Lennox – and still on my wish list). It was a happy choice; I really loved ‘Miss Marjoriebanks who put me strongly in mind of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ and was mildly excited when I realise that it was one of a set. I think now that the Carlingford chronicles probably have more in common with Trollope’s Barchester than Austen (Trollope and Oliphant are contemporary, but the Barchester books pre date the Carlingford chronicles and I wonder how much are owed to them?)

Since then I’ve managed to pick up all the chronicles – last done by Virago but now sadly out of print, they do turn up in charity shops and with the exception of ‘Salem Chapel’ are all cheap on amazon. Reading ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ and finding a copy of ‘Phoebe Junior’ reminded me that my Virago collection isn’t just for decoration and so I’m working my way through the set. First up was ‘The Rector and the Doctor’s Family’.

The Rector’ is a mere 35 pages long and bears comparison with Trollope’s ‘The Warden’ – both books deal with an aging clergyman in a comfortable living realising that they may not be the best men for the job. Oliphant’s rector has been a fellow of All Souls for most of his career, Carlingford is his first job in the field, and it also allows him to provide a comfortable home for his elderly mother. He’s a good and mild man with his heart in the right place but a lack of worldly experience soon tells. There is the vexed question of getting a wife, and the even more vexed question of how to help the needy. The poor rector finds himself wanting at the crisis point – and that’s really it; it wasn’t the most inspiring start to my project – not bad but not amazing.

The Doctor’s Family’ is a different beast altogether. The Doctor of the title is young Dr Rider – he’s saddled with a very unsatisfactory brother – Fred. Fred is an alcoholic, heavy smoking, lazy, irresponsible, all round bad egg who has already cost his brother one practice and now after a trip out to Australia has returned to recommence sponging. Things are at a pretty unsatisfactory point for the good Doctor when two mysterious women turn up on his doorstep. Fred has failed to mention a wife (whose money he’s spent) and three children, he’s also got an energetic sister in law who’s responsible for this sudden appearance from across the world.

Susan (the wife) is as selfish and irresponsible as her husband, but Nettie is a different matter. Despite being the younger of the two and unmarried she takes all the cares of the household onto her shoulders – its Nettie’s money that provides for Fred and Mrs Fred as well as all the little Freds (who are an appalling bunch all in need of the naughty step), Nettie’s energy that finds them a home, keeps the children clothed and the house running smoothly. Dr Rider is clearly destined to fall in love with Nettie, but can’t and won’t take up his brother’s responsibilities (feeling not unreasonably that Fred should man up and do the job himself). For Nettie however the responsibility is simply hers – she sees what her family is, realises that they are helpless without her and so gets on with helping them. It’s a very feminine thing to do but still leaves the reader burning with indignation on her behalf. Reason says she should pursue her own happiness with the same determination but heart dictates that we do these things for our family. It’s certainly what Oliphant did for hers – repeatedly. I think there’s a sense of frustration and anger here as well as a bit of justification; there was no shortage of Victorian women forced to earn a living for their families – the indignant female artist is an image that crops up in paintings (such as this one - Emily Mary Osborn’s ‘Nameless and Friendless’) as well as novels, the industrious but indignant lady novelist is almost a cliché. Mrs Oliphant is a voice for these women – and in ‘The Doctor’s Family’ she hasn’t wasted her opportunity.


  1. I've read a few of MO's novels and short stories but not this one --it sounds great! Thanks for the review.

  2. Intrigued that Salem Chapel is now expensive as I Have that one but don't have this one. I'm not a huge fan of Mrs Oliphant, but maybe I should have started at the start of the Carlingford Chronicles rather than in the middle.

  3. Harriet - I'm always on the look out for her books, I think she's due a revival so have my fingers crossed for re prints.

    Verity - when I say expensive I mean about £6 or £7 (mine was a bit less but not much) and then postage and packing - which is a bit steep for a mangled paperback. I really enjoy Oliphant though - which ones have you read?

  4. Great review Hayley, thank you. I have this on the tbr shelves & as I enjoyed Miss M, I'd like to get to it soon.