A couple of years ago Desperate Reader read all of Margaret Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford &, ever since, I’ve been collecting copies of them which have, naturally, never left the tbr shelves. Eventually, I moved the first book in the series, The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, from the tbr shelves to the tbr pile & now, at long last, I’ve read it.
This first volume is actually a short story & a novella & it sets up all the themes for the Chronicles to come. In The Rector, we’re introduced to the small town of Carlingford. The new Rector is about to arrive & everyone is curious about him. Will he be Low Church like the last Rector (who scandalised polite society by preaching to the bargemen at the canal) or will he be High Church? More importantly, will he be single? There are several unmarried ladies in Carlingford & the marital status of any new arrival is of paramount importance.
Morley Proctor has been a fellow of All Souls for the last fifteen years and, if it had been left to him, he would be a Fellow of All Souls still. However, he has an elderly mother & he feels it his duty to provide a home for her so he has accepted the living at Carlingford. Mr Proctor soon discovers that he is not suited to the duties of a parochial clergyman. His sermons are stiff, but, more importantly, he doesn’t know how to talk to people. He is shy and finds it difficult to relate to his parishioners. When he is called in to comfort a dying woman, he has no idea what to say & watches in embarrassed mortification as young Mr Wentworth, the curate of St Roque’s, rescues the situation with practiced ease & real feeling.
Mr Proctor is also aware that he is seen as a matrimonial prize & his mother is urging him to marry. Mr Wodehouses’s two daughters, the elder known only as Miss Woodhouse, is nearly forty, mild & kind. Her young half-sister, Lucy, is beautiful & wilful, & seems to have young Mr Wentworth at her feet. Mr Proctor is dazzled by her beauty but also aware that he is as much out of his depth with Lucy as he is in every other aspect of his life in Carlingford.
As The Rector sets up the ecclesiastical themes of the series, The Doctor’s Family introduces us to another part of Carlingford society. Dr Edward Rider is a newcomer who lives in a less fashionable part of town. He can’t rival old Dr Marjoribanks who has an iron grip on the leaders of Carlingford society so he sets up his practice at the other end of town. Dr Rider is a dissatisfied man as he has a burden, an albatross around his neck – his slovenly, drunken brother, Fred. Fred occupies an upstairs room & is a blight on the doctor’s life. He has returned from Australia, with no money & no prospects. He has also neglected to tell Edward that he left behind a wife & three children. When Fred’s wife, Susan, arrives in the care of her very capable sister, Nettie, Edward’s first thought is horror. To have Fred around his neck is one thing but a sister-in-law & three children to provide for is just too much.
Nettie, however, has other ideas. She has a little money of her own & has spent her life looking after Susan, who is a peevish, spiteful woman. Nettie takes lodgings near St Roque’s for the family & spends her life looking after the children, trying to keep up Susan’s spirits & bullying Fred into better behavior. Edward is fascinated by Nettie & begins visiting, even though it means he must also see his brother & his family. Edward falls in love with Nettie but she realises that if they married, Fred & family would have to come along as well. She knows that Edward would never be able to tolerate this. He’s a dissatisfied, grouchy man who is quick to take offence & jump to the wrong conclusions. Seeing Nettie walking with Mr Wentworth sends him into a paroxysm of bad temper although he has no claim on her & no right to be upset by her friendship with another man.
Nettie is such an interesting character. She is a good young woman who is very sure of herself & bears her responsibilities with fortitude. The fact that her family are less than grateful for all she does for them bothers her not at all. She tries hard to discipline & educate the unruly children & treats Fred like a hopeless invalid which he resents. Edward is grateful that she has taken the family off his hands but also feels guilty that he doesn’t do more to help. Nettie’s sense of herself is bound up with her sister & her family & she only begins to resent her position when her own happiness looks threatened. Mild Miss Wodehouse had tried to warn Nettie to think of herself more, but had been ignored.
But now the time predicted by Miss Wodehouse had arrived. Nettie’s personal happiness had come to be at stake and had been unhesitatingly given up. But the knowledge of that renunciation dwelt with Nettie. Not all the natural generosity of her mind – not that still stronger argument which she used so often, the mere necessity and inevitableness of the case – could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.
As Desperate Reader says, these books can be compared with Trollope’s Barsetshire series as the themes of Church & society are common to both. The Rector and The Doctor’s Family can be compared with The Warden & Barsetshire Towers in the way they set up the themes & characters of the whole series. However, Margaret Oliphant brings her own sensibility to the stories she tells. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the Introductions to the Virago reprints in the 1980s & these are well worth reading to get an idea of the context of the novels. The essays have been reprinted in A House of Air, a wonderful collection of essays & reviews by Penelope Fitzgerald which I’d recommend to anyone who loves reading about books.
Margaret Oliphant wrote for a living. She worked to support her husband, sons, brothers & other assorted family members. I couldn’t help seeing quite a lot of Oliphant in Nettie & maybe Oliphant had experienced that selfish ingratitude from her own family that Nettie experiences. Sometimes I couldn’t help having a little sympathy with Fred as Nettie bullies & bosses him but, where would Fred be without her? Although as Margaret Oliphant wrote in her Autobiography, she often wondered if she did the wrong thing propping her family up all the time. Would they have saved themselves if she hadn’t been there to do it for them? I had that same thought about Nettie as Edward Rider did when he tries to persuade Nettie to leave them & marry him. It’s a question that Margaret Oliphant struggled with & maybe tried to work through in her fiction. As Penelope Fitzgerald writes,
Mrs Oliphant creates a moral atmosphere of her own – warm, rueful, based on hard experience, tolerant just where we may not expect it. One might call it the Mrs Oliphant effect. In part it is the ‘uncomprehended, unexplainable impulse to take the side of the opposition’ which she recognized in herself and Jane Carlyle. It is the form that her wit takes, a sympathetic relish for contradictions.
I’m looking forward to reading more of the Chronicles of Carlingford.