Archive for the ‘Margaret Oliphant’ Category

My first encounter with Mrs Oliphant and her Chronicles of Carlingford series was not a resounding success.  I had not completely ruled out the idea of sampling some of her other books eventually but nor had I gone searching for them.  And then on Tuesday while trolling through the programmes on BBC iPlayer (because this is what I do), I saw that the dramatization of Miss Marjoribanks, originally broadcast several years ago, was available and so I started to listen.  It is wonderful!  I have had such fun listening to it and Lucilla Marjoribanks is an absolute delight.  So capable, so clever, so determined!  Do give it at try: you can find all four parts here, but, since programmes are only available from a week after airing, listen soon!  Part One will only be up for three more days, Part Two for four, and so on.

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When I started to read The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Margaret Oliphant, the first two novels in Oliphant’s “Chronicles of Carlingford”, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d never read anything by Oliphant before and had really heard very little about her.  I’d heard her work compared to that of Gaskell and Trollope and, with such praise, thought I’d best try her for myself.  After all, I love domestic novels about village life.  Surely she would be a perfect fit with my usual reading?  In theory: yes.  In practice: not quite.

The Rector is a rather somber, instructive little story (at less than 40 pages in the VMC edition, I can hardly call it a novel) whose style and occasional bursts of energy and humour made me very hopeful indeed that I could come to like Mrs. Oliphant.  Mr Proctor, the new rector, is a gentleman of fifty who has been cloistered in a university college for the past thirteen years and is singularly unsuited for the realities of his new position.  He is completely ill-at-ease with anyone other than his delightful old mother, a woman who has embarked on her second youth with great determination:

His mother was, let us say, a hundred years or so younger than the Rector…Mr Proctor was middle-aged, and preoccupied by right of his years; but his mother had long ago got over that stage of life.  She was at that point when some energetic natures, having got to the bottom of the hill, seem to make a fresh start and reascend.

To his credit, Mr Proctor took up the position of rector in order to provide his mother with company and a comfortable home in her final years.  Mrs Proctor is as socialable as her son is introverted, as forthright as he is timid.  What an excellent heroine she would have made!  The kind but inept Mr Proctor feels his shortcomings deeply and, miserable after his first true failure in his position (when he proves unable to counsel and comfort a dying woman and must step aside in favour of those who, apparently effortlessly, are able to succeed where he did not), he returns to his old college and the security it offers.  But, the narrator reveals, even there he is not happy, knowing that he is taking the coward’s way out of a difficult situation rather than facing his limitations and forcing himself to conquer them.  The ending is pathetically saccharine (I would have been so pleased if he had just disappeared into depressed obscurity) and far too neat and hopeful.  There is a strong and off-putting moralizing tone that emerges and I find it difficult to palate.

And then there is The Doctor’s Family, which is also rather gloomy but significantly longer and, with its put-upon, self-sacrificing heroine, rather explains why Oliphant must have appealed to Virago.  It begins in a promising, if stilted way, but greatly disappointed me in the end.  Doctor Edward Rider is sullenly putting up with his wastrel elder brother Fred imposing on his home and hospitality when Fred’s unheard of wife, three children, and sister-in-law suddenly appear, come out from Australia to track him down.  Mrs Fred is just as useless and resentful as her alcoholic husband and it is her younger, energetic sister Nettie who finds them lodgings nearby, who sees to it that there is food on the table, that the landlord is paid, that the children are respectably clothed.  Nettie’s entire life revolves around this useless, thankless family.  They are her life’s work and her sense of responsibility for them, and the sense of purpose they give her, is so great that she cannot imagine any life of her own.  She jealously and proudly guards her responsibilities, refusing Edward’s rather pathetically small attempts to help, and when she is suddenly no longer needed, she becomes completely lost:

The work she had meant to do was over.  Nettie’s occupation was gone.  With the next act of the domestic drama she had nothing to do.  For the first time in her life utterly vanquished, with silent promptitude she abdicated on the instant.  She seemed unable to strike a blow for the leadership thus snatched from her hands. 

The ending is shockingly unsatisfactory.  Nettie is a sad shadow of herself and the concluding events, so eagerly anticipated for much of the novel, seem manipulative and exploitative given Nettie’s weakened spirit.   

Between the two novels, there was really only one character I came away liking: Mrs Proctor, that charming, spry septuagenarian.  And when I can’t like the characters, I really do find it difficult to like the book (particularly when unworthy characters are rewarded with relatively happy endings).  I found Oliphant’s writing style unmemorable and uneven, with some quite clever passages followed by pages and pages of dull plodding stuff, and her tendency to moralize reminiscent of all those lesser Victorian novelists who rely on sentiment rather than skill.  Clearly, I was not won over.

Dear Readers, does she improve with other novels, does her style develop, her characterization gain depth?  There was enough of merit here that I couldn’t quite abandon this book as I was reading it, enough promise (never quite fulfilled) that made me hopeful.  If she is worth pursuing, if you can assure me there is still hope, then pursue her I shall.

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