Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mrs. Oliphant Is Just Getting Started With The Rector and The Doctor's Family


Snapped this stairwell mural discreetly. Shhhh.
Last year I went to Detroit for Spring Break to visit family (not nearly as exciting as Italy, it's true.) One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to John King Books, a former glove factory which is now a treasure-trove of used books on multiple levels. It's dim and dirty and you're not supposed to take photos. Don't tell.

I did, however, come home with a large stack of books, including some classic green Viragos:


The skinny little one in the middle is The Rector and The Doctor's Family by Margaret Oliphant, the Victorian writer who created the Chronicles of Carlingford. She's not much read nowadays but wrote about 120 books and was a best-selling author. A couple of years ago I read and loved Miss Marjoribanks which was described as very Jane Austen-ish, so when I saw this green Virago I bought it. 

Anyway, The Rector and The Doctor's Family are second and third  in the Chronicles of Carlingford, and they're so short that the combined edition is only 192 pages. I tucked it into my bag on a recent weekend trip because it was so small I could carry it around town without any trouble.

Originally published in 1863, the first novella, The Rector, is only 40 pages long, and it's really closer to a short story. It starts out with a young curate, Mr. Wentworth, visiting two sisters named Wodehouse -- a nod to Jane Austen, perhaps? There's a new rector in town, the middle-aged Reverend Morley Proctor, and naturally, conversation turns to whether he is a single or married man. The two miss Wodehouses are single, and the elder remarks that perhaps Reverend Proctor will someday marry her younger sister Lucy! Now, I'm not sure if she meant that Rev. Proctor is intended as the groom, or that he'd officiate at the ceremony, but young Lucy is about 18 and quite taken aback (as is Mr. Wentworth, who clearly has feelings for her). The elder Miss Wodehouse is 20 years Lucy's senior, and naturally there's speculation that she would be an excellent companion to Rev. Proctor. 

Now, I thought this was going to be a sweet story about Rev. Proctor choosing between the two sisters, but it isn't. Soon Rev. Proctor has a career crisis and can't decide if Carlingford is the place for him, and the story ends pretty quickly. I wasn't much impressed except for some very amusing parts with Mrs. Proctor, Morley's elderly mother, who is rather deaf and isn't shy about speaking her mind. I was a little perturbed that they implied how ancient she was when she's only 70, and Miss Wodehouse as rather elderly -- she's not quite 40! 


The second book in the volume, The Doctor's Family, is the far superior story. Dr. Edward Rider, a youngish single man, has started a practice in Carlingford and is tolerating an extended visit from his wastrel older brother Frederick, who seems to do nothing but lay about, read novels, and smoke. There's some implication that Edward had to leave a previous position because of something that Fred did, but it's never really explained. Edward's life seems sort of dull and hopeless until one day two strange women turn up, claiming to be Frederick's wife and sister-in-law, whom he abandoned in Australia -- with three small children! 

As soon as he gets over this surprise, Edwards discovers that Fred's wife Susan is whiny and self-absorbed, but her sister Nettie is forthright and assertive; also, young and pretty. Edward has never met anyone like her and is instantly smitten, but Nettie is only concerned about taking care of her sister's family, especially the children. Edward desperately tries to think of a way that he and Nettie can be happy together without the baggage of his family, but then a disaster occurs. I was really rooting for Nettie and and Edward to get together.

The second novella was far more interesting than the first, and I wasn't quite sure how it would all play out. The turn of events was pretty satisfactory, but Nettie's character seem to change dramatically. It does seem that some of the characters in the Carlingford series seem to repeat (Miss Marjoribanks is mentioned quite a lot, though I don't think she actually has any dialogue) so I'm hoping that if I read more of the series I'll find out a bit more about what happened to them. 

These novellas were entertaining, and the second was definitely an improvement over the first, though neither was nearly as good as Miss Marjoribanks. I do want to read more of the series and fill in the gaps about the Carlingford Characters. 

I'm counting this as my novella for the Victorian Reading Challenge

2 comments:

  1. I love this series, it does get better, and it's great fun seeing Oliphant take in Trollopes Barchester books as the series progresses. If I knew rather more Victorian literature I think I'd recognise other books and writers she's having a dig at too. She certainly mentions some. Definitely worth persevering with.

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  2. I only managed one trip to John King Books years ago when I visited Borders headquarters in Ann Arbor fairly often for work. For some reason, I brought them an armful of books, perhaps in anticipation of leaving with some treasures. I think I was disciplined, knowing I was flying back to NYC but I am sure I did not leave empty handed.

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