Margaret Oliphant’s first three Carlingford stories – The Executor, The Rector, and The Doctor’s Family, all published in 1861 – are more interesting as a group than separately. I am surprised how few characters she needed to fill the town. Compare Carlingford to the Hungarian town in Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark, crammed with folks. Carlingford in more like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, in which the town without men turns out to not have more than a half dozen women, either, as long as we’re talking about a narrow class.
Who does Oliphant need to tell three stories about Carlingford? The prosperous Dr. Marjoribanks and his still barely marriageable daughter Miss Marjoribanks, who will return in Miss Marjoribanks (1866). The Wodehouse family, who we met in The Rector, with two daughters. One of them may or may not marry the perpetual curate:
Ah me! And if he was to be perpetual curate, and none of his great friends thought upon him, or had preferment to bestow, how do you suppose he could ever, ever marry Lucy Wodehouse, if they were to wait a hundred years? (“The Rector,” p. 38)
All of which is presumably resolved in The Perpetual Curate (1864). In these first stories, Oliphant was apparently preparing for a shelf of novels.
The Doctor’s Family stars a doctor with whom Oliphant spent a few pages in The Executor. In that story, he botched a chance at a good marriage, so here he gets to try again. Since we last saw him, his useless brother Fred has moved in with him. The brother, also, nominally, a doctor, smokes, and sits, and smokes some more. A story about the conflict between the two brothers, one having given up on life, the other not exactly a ray of sunshine but still active, would be good enough, yes? But then the doctor comes home to find two young women in his house:
She was not only slender, but thin, dark, eager, impetuous, with blazing black eyes and red lips, and nothing else notable about her. So he thought, gazing fascinated, yet not altogether attracted - scarcely sure that he was not repelled – unable, however, to withdraw his eyes from that hurried, eager little figure. Nothing in the least like her had ever yet appeared before Dr Rider’s eyes. (75)
Who are these women?
There was a momentary pause; the two women exchanged looks. "I told you so," cried the eager little spokeswoman. "He never has let his friends know; he was afraid of that. I told you how it was. This," she continued, with a little tragic air, stretching out her arm to her sister, and facing the doctor -- "this is Mrs Frederick Rider, or rather Mrs Rider, I should say, as he is the eldest of the family! Now will you please to tell us where he is?"
The doctor made no immediate answer. He gazed past the speaker to the faded woman behind, and exclaimed, with a kind of groan, "Fred's wife!" (76)
Throw in three children, about whom the doctor knew nothing. Now, this is the doctor’s family, and plenty of activity for a 140 page domestic novel. Oliphant’s best insights come from two sources: the perverse psychology of useless people, and the even more perverse psychology of useful people.
I’m not sure that The Doctor’s Family has a single scene as good as the Rector’s crisis with the dying woman, although there’s another death scene that comes close. Still, this short novel is my favorite of the Oliphant I’ve read. She has a chance to stretch out her use of the town, but without needing any of the senseless plot mechanics Penelope Fitzgerald found in the longer Carlingford novels.
Recommended, easily, to anyone who enjoys Trollope or Gaskell or perhaps Jane Austen. The more I read bloggers on Austen, the less sure I am of what they’re getting from her. But that’s a topic for another day, or never.