Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If there is anything I can do, if I can be of any use? - Margaret Oliphant and The Rector

Margaret Oliphant’s The Executor was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in May 1861.  I don’t know if it was her plan, but the story became the first of the Chronicles of Carlingford.  Did the glimpses of so many characters suggest that she continue with their stories, or was she already setting up her future work?  Regardless, the concept of a series of stories set in the same town, with recurring characters, perhaps borrowed from Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles (three novels and part of the fourth had appeared by this point), seems to have pushed Oliphant in some way.  How would I know, since I ain’t read ‘em, but Oliphant enthusiasts don’t seem to put much value on anything she wrote before the Carlingford stories.  And she improved in some ways even in 1861, as she proceeded to The Rector and the longer The Doctor’s Family.

Penelope Fitzgerald, in the essay that accompanies the Virago edition of The Rector, spends her time on the best scene in the story, although she makes a few errors or emendations, all of which are improvements, or at least make Oliphant’s story more like a Penelope Fitzgerald story.  Still.  Here it is.

The old Rector was a popular evangelical minister.  The new Rector is High Church, nervous and cold, a refugee from Oxford, known for “[h]is treatise on the Greek verb, and his new edition of Sophocles.”  He discovers that he is a bad minister, unable to fulfill his ordinary duties.  The crisis comes when he almost accidentally finds himself in the room of a dying woman who is desperate for spiritual comfort.  The Rector "had not his prayer book – he was not prepared."  He suggests the woman call a doctor; he counsels patience.  "You are very ill, but not so ill – I suppose."

The sick woman had turned to the wall, and closed her eyes in dismay and disappointment – evidently she had ceased to expect anything from him.

‘If there is anything I can do,’ said poor Mr Proctor, ‘I am afraid I have spoken hastily. I meant to try to calm her mind a little; if I can be of any use?’

‘Ah, maybe I’m hasty,’ said the dying woman, turning round again with a sudden effort – ‘but, oh, to speak to me of having time when I’ve one foot in the grave already!’

‘Not so bad as that – not so bad as that,’ said the Rector, soothingly.

‘But I tell you it is as bad as that,’ she cried, with the brief blaze of anger common to great weakness. (55-6)

And it is.  The perpetual curate, a true minister, and future protagonist of The Perpetual Curate (1864), arrives and does what a priest ought to do.  The Rector is, he discovers, a worse man than he had ever known.  Oliphant cleans up the mess and sends him back to Oxford, accompanied by his disappointment in himself, his “secret of discontent.”

It’s like Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff or something. Pretty sharp.

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