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.