Monday, March 28, 2011

Salem Chapel – Mrs Oliphant

The second chronicle of Carlingford (or is it the third?) and I’m developing a proper crush on Mrs Oliphant. When I started ‘Salem Chapel’ I was a little bit daunted by the length (my copy is 460 pages which give a spirited impression of being more) but bar the last 40 pages it ran along just fine. That last slog is where the characters catch up with what the reader already knows and new developments slow down to a snail’s pace, it’s a bit like the end of the working day when the last hour (and the last 40 pages) seems to take forever.

Ostensibly ‘Salem Chapel’ is the tale of young dissenting minister Arthur Vincent and how he deals with his flock. I think it’s really far more about the women in his life; how they are both immensely powerful and powerless in society. There are the deacons wives for instance clad in an iron armour of respectability who hold sway over their husbands and the congregation; if Arthur offends the women (which he does) his job won’t be safe. Then there’s Phoebe Tozer a very pink and dimpled young lady who has the hapless clergyman in her sights; through a series of blushes and exclamations she repeatedly out manoeuvres our hero despite his devoted admiration to Lady Western – a lovely young widow who is as dangerous to a susceptible young man as she is kind and foolish. All these women hold and exert a very real authority over their society, and what’s more it’s an authority that Arthur is in no way equipped to stand against.

However it’s all about respectability and there are women less fortunate; enter Mrs Hilyard (a mysterious needlewoman with a past and a daughter to protect) and Arthur’s own mother and sister. The worm in the bud is Colonel Mildmay (a vile seducer) who absconds with Arthur’s sister whilst promising marriage. Unfortunately he’s not a single man. He has what's more been searching for his daughter who he also carries off, but the girl’s mother is having none of it and tracks him down with murderous intent. What happens next is a scandal that threatens to destroy the minister and all his family.

If Susan can be returned she’ll have to be kept far away from Arthur whose tenure is entirely at the whim of his congregation, but theirs is not the mother to abandon her child however degraded she is. It looks like exile abroad if they can find Susan – and it’s a big if. As things turn out Susan does return but in such a state of shock that it’s reasonable to fear for both her life and reason. She has done absolutely nothing wrong but her name has become common property and it seems life will never be the same for any of the Vincent’s.

Richard Redgrave - The Sempstress

There are plenty of holes in this story including an over reliance on coincidence, Mildmay is a two dimensional stock villain and apparently the details about dissenting ministries are not all they could be (I know nothing about the dissenters so can’t say either way) but Oliphant writes with such passion and conviction that none of that matters. This book really fired my imagination and evoked an answering passion in response. All those women felt real and all of them demanded my sympathy, Arthur and his struggle to reconcile his position as leader of his flock with the reality of being its paid servant interested me and I shared his frustrations but I can read that dilemma elsewhere. Oliphant’s portrait of female society is something so far unique in my reading life, she’s the writer I was looking for when I started to question the potted version of women’s history I had at school. I hope that by the time I’ve finished the Carlingford chronicles I’ll be better able to express how she makes me feel, and pin down why I think she’s important so please bear with me on this.

And the good news is - there are currently plenty of cheap copies on amazon UK - well worth the investment!


  1. Great review! Thanks so much. You've hooked me, and I'm off to order one for myself :)

  2. Oh I hope you do, Oliphant is over due a revival - the more interest in her the better.