Although I breezily dismiss the value of plot for the sake of overemphasizing style, plot is really another dimension of style, another place to study the how, whatever the what. Frank and Lucy, the stars of The Perpetual Curate, are going to overcome every obstacle and marry at the end of the novel. This is perfectly evident within a few pages, simply because of the tone of the writing. If this were a Theodor Storm novella, we might instead find a tale of renunciation and lost love, but this ain’t that. Frank and Lucy marry – but how?
Oliphant impressed me with the ingenious way she introduces possible solutions while simultaneously rendering them unsatisfying. We begin with the friction between the Curate and his trio of elderly aunts, who possess a clerical living and might or might not let Frank have it. So that’s Solution #1. But we have five hundred pages left, so things can’t be that simple, or, if they are, I, the reader, won’t be happy. Soon, Oliphant brings in Frank's older brother, a clergyman who is leaving the Anglican church for Catholicism. Ah, here is Solution #2: Frank takes the family living and is thus able to marry as a consequence of his beloved brother’s agonizing crisis of conscience. Oliphant has actually ramped up the challenge: now, she has to find a way to remove this solution, introduced too early, too ethically questionable, and too cheap.
Victorian novels can be a little too classbound for my tastes. Nicholas Nickleby is the example I’m thinking of. Nicholas has no money but somehow the idea of doing something “ungentlemanly” is not part of the novel. The Perpetual Curate impressed me with the way it begins within conventional class limits and then gradually, logically, pushes past them, allowing Oliphant and her characters more interesting ways to end the book. Readers looking for the Strong Female Character will appreciate the way Frank and Lucy mutually negotiate the satisfying ending.
They have an advocate in one of those aunts, one who is, for most of the book, a hysterical fool:
“There is one thing, and I must say it if I should die." She had to pause a little to recover her voice, for haste and excitement had a tendency to make her inarticulate. "Frank," said Miss Dora again, more solemnly than ever, "whatever you may be obliged to do - though you were to write novels, or take pupils, or do translations - oh, Frank, don't look at me like that, as if I was going crazy. Whatever you may have to do, oh my dear, there is one thing - don't go and break people's hearts, and put it off, and put it off, till it never happens!" cried the trembling little woman, with a sudden burst of tears. "Don't say you can wait, for you can't wait, and you oughtn't to!" sobbed Miss Dora. She subsided altogether into her handkerchief and her chair as she uttered this startling and wholly unexpected piece of advice, and lay there in a little heap, all dissolving and floating away, overcome with her great effort, while her nephew stood looking at her from a height of astonishment almost too extreme for wondering. If the trees could have found a voice and counselled his immediate marriage, he could scarcely have been more surprised. (478-9)
There is no way to really appreciate the surprise of this passage without having spent more time with Aunt Dora, but the little dissolved heap and the talking trees are excellent, and Aunt Dora’s vision of the worst possible careers – novels! - is a fine joke.
Especially since another aunt, the stubborn, stiff one, returns to the "novel" theme at the very end of The Perpetual Curate. That’s her in the title of the post. Because Oliphant, having resolved the central romance in a perfectly satisfactory fashion, pulls another ending, an outrageous one, out of one of the subplots. When Frank tells Lucy about it, tells her that the obstacles are gone, she chides him for joking. “If I had been making up a story, I would have kept to what was likely,” Frank replies. Aunt Leonora agrees:
"I suppose this is what fools call poetic justice," said Miss Leonora, "which is just of a piece with everything else that is poetical - weak folly and nonsense that no sensible man would have anything to say to. How a young man like you, who know how to conduct yourself in some things, and have, I don't deny, many good qualities, can give in to come to an ending like a trashy novel, is more than I can understand. You are fit to be put in a book of the Good-child series, Frank, as an illustration of the reward of virtue," said the strong-minded woman, with a little snort of scorn; "and, of course, you are going to marry, and live happy ever after, like a fairy tale." (535-6)
Frank replies with a good dig at his aunt. What a help that Frank (and Oliphant) are funny. I joked last week about Oliphant the Postmodernist, and this is what I meant. If the reader finds the ending false or arbitrary – trashy – he has support from the text, which at the same time is actually arguing that, on the contrary, this ending is just right, which it is.