Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The undulations of the beard - Margaret Oliphant, writer

How many guidelines for good book reviewing did I violate yesterday?  I feel bad, genuinely, for omitting the slightest sample of Oliphant’s writing.  A mortal sin, but, I tell myself, that’s what the rest of the week is for.

Because: “The book is about X Y Z.”  Here, X = 19th century English religious controversy.  Perhaps you are someone who reads every book about 19th century religious controversy, in which case you will be excited to hear what The Perpetual Curate is about, except that you surely already know all about it.  For anyone else, though, who cares?  Every bad book is about something.  A great book can be about anything.  So, about: who cares.  How: that's better.  How does Oliphant write about X Y Z?  One example today.

Frank Wentworth, the Perpetual Curate, is having a battle of wills with his three aunts.  This is sufficient to get us 13% of the way through the novel, but probably won’t fill three volumes.  So, at the end of Chapter VII, Oliphant introduces Conflict 2, story type: A Stranger Comes to Town.  The stranger is somehow threatening to the family of the woman the Curate wants to marry, yet for some reason the Curate is protecting him.  Mystery upon mystery.  Chapter VIII begins with the stranger:

He was the strangest lodger to be taken into a house of such perfect respectability, a house in Grange Lane; and it came to be currently reported in Carlingford after a time, when people knew more about it, that even the servants could not tell when or how he arrived, but had woke up one morning to find a pair of boots standing outside the closed door of the green room, which the good old lady kept for company, with sensations which it would be impossible to describe. (69)

So I’m wrong.  We do not begin with the stranger, but with his boots.

Such a pair of boots they were too - muddy beyond expression, with old mud which had not been brushed off for days  worn shapeless, and patched at the sides; the strangest contrast to a handsome pair of Mr Wentworth's, which he, contrary to his usual neat habits, had kicked off in his sitting-room, and which Sarah, the housemaid, had brought and set down on the landing, close by these mysterious and unaccountable articles.

Oliphant then takes us into the kitchen, to hear the stranger ring his bell.  Then back to the boots, which are sent out to be mended.  Then his “shabby clothes.”  Then his underwear!  I mean, his linen, which he borrows from the Curate.  Next: his whistling (so beautiful that it astonishes a canary, “and the butcher's boy stole into the kitchen surreptitiously to try if he could learn the art”.  Then, his whittling (“he filled his tidy room with parings and cuttings of wood”).  Then a gift ("a needlecase") for the housemaid.

Oliphant is employing the same trick she used in the first chapter of the first Carlingford story: delay, delay, delay.  The special treatment of the maid turns out to be important for the plot, and the “green room” is actually a clue to the stranger’s identity, a clue available only to the reader, not the characters.

We, with the hysterical Aunt Dora, actually meet the stranger a few pages later, or, really, his beard.  The stranger has become all beard.  Just one sentence: “It was a great comfort to her when the monster took off its cap, and when she perceived, by the undulations of the beard, something like a smile upon its hidden lips” (74).

The undulations of the beard.  I’m reading Moby-Dick now, a book in which every single sentence includes some wonderfully spiky writerly thrill.  This particular sentence – not necessarily representative! – would not be out of place in Melville.

The stranger and his beard wander about the novel, nameless, for another 150 pages.

Page references to the 1987 Virago edition.


  1. No need to beat yourself up about reviewing guidelines--even without the sample, I found it helpful. Sometimes stylistic snippets out of context can be more destructive to a book's reputation than no samples at all. Regardless, if Oliphant ends up on my orals list, I now have a sense of which works to make a bee-line for...

  2. You and I are among the select few who have actually read Mrs. Oliphant. I've not read this one but I did read Miss Marjoribanks and Hester. I think she's an un-re-discovered treasure. I have this one on my TBR stack. Maybe I'll get around to it this year.

    I'm also having some trouble getting back into the reviewing swing after a vacation.

  3. I need the snippet. Throw context to the dogs! I want a sentence that makes me want to read more of the same. The wrong sentence, though - you're right about that.

    Oliphant would be a fine author to have on an orals exam.

    CB - your Yale posts were most entertaining, but I can see how they don't feel like the same kind of writing. I hope you do get to this novel soonish. More Oliphant for me, too, someday.

  4. I just got an E-Mail from The Book Depository saying they have just begun to sell books published by Cannon Gate Classics in Scotland-they have a great line of Scottish Authors like Margaret Oliphant and James Hogg plus a number of authors I have not heard of-108 titles in all-My experience with The Book Depository is very good-I live in Manila so the free shipping the offer is big help for me-

  5. I haven't heard of a lot of those authors, either. 20th century Scottish literature is still mostly a mystery to me. After this year of reading, I can vouch for the quality of most of their older titles. It's a nice catalog.