I was in the mood for something Victorian not too long ago, and Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate was exactly what I needed. It’s a long (relatively long, 500 not-too-dense pages), absorbing story with interesting characters and an amusing tone. Its mood is light, but it deals with serious situations and genuine problems, so it never felt frivolous.
The story is about Frank Wentworth, the perpetual curate of the title, a young man who loves his work but understands that it doesn’t pay enough for him to marry the woman he loves, Lucy Wodehouse. In order for that to happen, he would have to become a rector. This is actually quite possible, as he has three aunts who will soon have a living to bestow, but, alas, Frank and the aunts do not see eye to eye when it comes to how one should run a church service. The aunts lean toward the evangelical side, while Frank is more solidly, traditionally Anglican. The aunts unexpectedly show up to Frank’s Easter service, and are shocked at the sight of flowers on the alter and are displeased with his sermon. Frank realizes that those pesky flowers, which he is not sure he cares all that much about, may have ruined his chances for married happiness.
Oliphant piles problem after problem on poor Frank’s shoulders. Not only does he have the uptight aunts to deal with, but he is seen in what looks like a compromising situation with a pretty, young shop girl, and rumors begin to fly. The town that has stood behind him for the five years or so he has worked there now starts to have doubts. Then the local rector, newly arrived in the town, gets angry at him for running services for the poor in his district. And then his brother, Gerald, decides that he wants to convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest, even if it means abandoning his wife. There is also the strange, unpleasant, badly-dressed man who shows up in Frank’s lodgings, and whom Frank takes in for mysterious reasons, even though his neighbors are none too pleased.
Much of the novel has Frank running around from one disaster to another, trying to figure out how to appease his family, friends, and parishioners while at the same time staying true to his principles. Fortunately, as Oliphant frequently points out, Frank is young and can bounce back from disasters quickly. But still, it’s chilling to read a convincing description of how suddenly, and for no real fault of Frank’s, everything can suddenly go wrong. People misread events and misunderstand conversations, and because Frank can sometimes be a little oblivious, he doesn’t always realize when this happens. Suddenly his world is falling apart around him, and he hardly knows how it happened. This can happen to any of us, the novel implies, at any time, and there is little to be done about it.
The things that could be done to rectify the situation Frank rejects as impossible because of his strong sense of pride and honor. He can’t simply go to his aunts and declare he really didn’t mean it about the flowers because he can’t stoop that low, and he can’t simply explain that he doesn’t care anything about the pretty shop girl because he doesn’t want to dignify the accusations. This sense of pride and honor, which he and Lucy share, becomes so powerful and his and Lucy’s feelings are so delicate, that they threaten to become absurd. In fact, by the end of the novel I was wondering whether Oliphant was having a little fun gently mocking them. This suspicion was reinforced by the way Oliphant frequently draws attention near the novel’s end to the fact that it is a novel that she’s writing, as though she is pulling away from the narrative a bit to evaluate her characters more directly than she ever did before. Endings are tricky, she seems to be saying, and sometimes they can be a little silly or unrealistic, so don’t take it all too seriously.
The Perpetual Curate is part of a series of novels called “The Chronicles of Carlingford,” and this novel is the fourth book of six. I’m pleased to know this, because it means I can return to this world and to these characters five more times if I want to. If I’m able to find the books, that is. I will certainly be on the lookout for more Oliphant in the future.
12 responses to “The Perpetual Curate”
I had not heard of this book or the author so thanks for the review.
I found Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, one of the other Carlingford novels, quite enjoyable, too.
I’ve heard of Margaret Oliphant, although I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a thing about her. So thank you for the lovely informative review! It’s very good to know more about Victorian novelists as that era is a bit of a black hole in my reading. Those big slow novels suit winter, so perhaps I should read a few in the coming months?
I’ve never heard of this author or this series of books but I certainly am intrigued by what you described. Lately I’ve been looking for longer more Victorian-esque sagas, so this definitely sounds like it would fit the bill… I’ll certainly be searching out Margaret Oliphant in the future!
Never heard of her! Can’t tell a thing about her! Eleven posts in the last five months for what? For what!
Here I would include a smiley face on its ear, if I were entirely sure what that meant.
Great writeup – perfectly clear, exactly accurate.
This sounds like a nice, sprawling Victorian tale–they are always so dramatic, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the stories. I have her Miss Marjoribanks as well–she sounds like a good, dependable sort of read, so I look forward to picking it up some time.
I thought the book sounded interesting when Amateur Reader wrote about it and now you’ve gone and read it too and made it sound even more interesting and I am going to have to download it to my Kindle from Project Gutenberg!
When I read this post, I thought to myself, “Where have I heard glowingly of Oliphant lately? I know I have.” Then I read Amateur Reader’s comments and I remembered where. That’s two of you now – and that’s good enough for me to be sold.
I, too, was pulled in to the general Oliphant orbit by Amateur Reader, and am so glad to have the reminder that The Perpetual Curate is one I’d like to pick up! It’s that playful quality you mention at the end (AR talked about a similar thing in terms of style) that makes me think I would really enjoy her. Thanks, Dorothy!
Sounds like fun, I like it when the novelist takes the reader out of the story just a moment to remind us that this is only a story…but it does have a happy ending, doesn’t it?
Pingback: Book Bloggers: An Appreciation » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism
Mystica — You’re very welcome 🙂
Anna — that’s excellent to know. I’ll have to look for that one. It would be a logical place to go next with Oliphant.
Litlove — reading a few Victorian novels over the winter sounds like a great plan! I get an urge for something Victorian pretty regularly, so it’s a common era for me to dig into. I’m glad there are so many good choices!
Steph — that’s great! I’m glad to turn some people on to Margaret Oliphant. With Amateur Reader’s help, of course 🙂
AR — thank you! And many thanks for writing about this book so well. I kept a close eye on the carpet in this book because of you.
Danielle — well, Miss Marjoriebanks it will probably be for me next time. I hope I can find a Virago Classics edition, so they look nice on the shelf together! I’ll have to look into how many Oliphant books they have published.
Stefanie — that sounds like an excellent idea! They have quite a few by M.O. on Project Gutenberg I see. Hmmm … that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to wanting a Kindle …
Grad — excellent! Our work is done, then 🙂 Although, of course, it isn’t … which is a good thing.
Emily — I’d love it if you read her. Although the book deals with serious subjects, the lightness is definitely part of what makes the book so charming.
Verbivore — of course it does! She just puts you through the wringer a bit, which is what any good plot does, I suppose. I definitely like it when the author gets a little metafictional — I love thinking about fiction itself as I’m reading.