Salem Chapel (photo from here) is a very odd book that begins in Barsetshire & ends up reading like a sensation novel by Wilkie Collins. It’s one of the Chronicles of Carlingford, the most popular series of novels written by Margaret Oliphant, a productive & popular 19th century novelist.
Arthur Vincent is a young Dissenting minister, appointed to his first post to Salem Chapel in Carlingford. The Dissenters of Carlingford are mostly tradesmen, very proud of their ability to build a new red brick chapel for their congregation & determined to get their money’s worth from the young preacher they’ve appointed. They are also proud to be distinguished from the Church-going folk on the other side of Grange Lane, in thrall, as they see it, to the Establishment.
As he walked about Carlingford making acquaintance with the place, it occurred to the young man, with a thrill of not ungenerous ambition, that the time might shortly come when Salem Chapel would be all too insignificant for the Nonconformists of this hitherto torpid place. He pictured to himself how, by-and-by, those jealous doors in Grange Lane would fly open at his touch, and how the dormant minds within would awake under his influence. It was a blissful dream to the young pastor.
Arthur Vincent soon discovers that the ideals he held for his future as a minister to his flock collide with his distaste for the position he finds himself in – beholden to men such as Mr Tozer the grocer & Mr Pigeon the poulterer for his livelihood & expected to graciously take their advice. Vincent is also dismayed at being expected to visit his flock to drink tea & make small talk. He also soon realises that he is expected to marry according to the wishes of the congregation (there are dire hints about the unsuitability of a previous minister’s wife) & sees that blushing Phoebe Tozer is aiming for the post. Mr Tozer is not shy in setting out the flock’s expectations,
“Mr Vincent, sir,” said Tozer solemnly, pushing away his empty teacup, and leaning forward over the table on his folded arms, “them ain’t the sentiments for a pastor in our connection. That’s a style of thing that may do among fine folks, or in the church where there’s no freedom; but them as chooses their own pastor, and pays their own pastor, and don’t spare no pains to make him comfortable, has a right to expect different.Them ain’t the sentiments, sir, for Salem folks. … and this I know, that a minister as has to please his flock, has got to please his flock whatever happens, and neither me nor no other man can make it different; and that Mrs Vincent, as has seen life, can tell you as well as I can.”
All this is very much what I expected from a Carlingford novel. The tone changes when Vincent meets Mrs Hilyard, a mysterious woman living in poverty & sewing for a living. Mrs Hilyard attends the Chapel although she’s obviously of a higher social class than most Dissenters. She also receives visits from the beautiful young Dowager, Lady Western, & seems to be on terms of affectionate friendship with her. Vincent is puzzled by Mrs Hilyard & curious to know her story. He’s also dazzled by Lady Western & dismays the Chapel goers by accepting an invitation to dinner & appearing to court her notice. Vincent receives letters from his mother in the country telling him about his sister, Susan’s, suitor, a man called Fordham.
This is the beginning of the sensation plot which involves impersonation, abduction, attempted bigamy & accusations of murder. Vincent overhears Mrs Hilyard arguing with a man, Colonel Mildmay, about a child that she is desperate to keep from him. When Vincent lets her know that he has heard her conversation, Mrs Hilyard asks that the child, her daughter, be sent to Vincent’s mother for safekeeping, little realising that this action will put the girl in danger. The disappearance of Susan Vincent, in company with Mrs Hilyard’s daughter, Alice, & Susan’s suitor, sparks a chase from one end of England to the other & Vincent’s position at Salem Chapel is put at risk by his unconventional behaviour.
I have to say that, much as I enjoyed the book, the two halves really don’t mix very well. I wondered whether Mrs Oliphant felt obliged to add the sensational elements because of the success of novels like The Woman in White (Salem Chapel was published in 1863). It was certainly so successful that she was able to ask for a substantial price for her next book. Even for a sensation novel, there are just a few too many coincidences in the plot for me. Arthur Vincent is also a very unsympathetic character. Superior, impatient, ungracious, he ignores the proprieties & the obligations of his position. He becomes obsessed with his pursuit of Lady Western & jealous of those he perceives as his rivals. Even when he becomes a successful preacher, he finds it distasteful that the deacons rate his success based on the number of people who hear him preach & continually remind him that as they have appointed him, they can remove him at any time if he doesn’t give satisfaction. He’s the son of a minister & must have known that his flock was going to consist of tradespeople so why is he so snobbish about their houses & their daughters & their aspirations?
Salem itself, and the new pulpit, which had a short time ago represented to poor Vincent that tribune from which he was to influence the world, that point of vantage which was all a true man needed for the making of his career, dwindled into a miserable scene of trade before his disenchanted eyes – a preaching shop, where his success was to be measured by the seat-letting, and his soul decanted out into periodical issue under the seal of Tozer & Co. Such, alas! were the indignant thoughts with which, the old Adam rising bitter and strong within him, the young Nonconformist hastened home.
Arthur’s mother is another character I could have seen much less of. From the moment when she arrives in Carlingford after Arthur has alarmed her with her doubts about Susan’s suitor, she never stops talking & wailing & worrying about the proprieties. I know that a young girl’s reputation was a fragile thing but she does lament too much over Susan’s “fall” even before she knows what has happened. Almost driven to distraction by the shocking thought that her daughter has deliberately run away with a man, her fears for Arthur’s reputation with his flock almost outweigh her fears for Susan’s welfare. My favourite character was Mr Tozer, who champions Arthur’s cause even when he ignores his very good advice & causes offence wherever he goes. Tozer is proud of the success of Arthur’s preaching & not averse to scoring over his fellow deacon, Mr Pigeon, but he does stick by Arthur even when he goes off on wild goose chases on a Sunday & neglects the social side of his job. There’s also plenty of humour & satire in the portrayal of the families of the Chapel which was just wonderful. I can’t help thinking that it would have been a more successful novel if the sensation subplots had been left out.
The sensation plot winds up very quietly after the amount of lamentation about Susan’s reputation, whereabouts & lingering fate that has gone on. Arthur realises that he has to make some fundamental changes to his own life before he can be truly happy &, even then, he manages to go against the advice of everyone who cares for him, contrary to the last.