Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Margaret Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate - a review-like post

Geez, I take a break and I can’t write a word.  Wait, here I go.

Margaret Oliphant wrote most of her books in the middle of the night, after all of her children and deadweight relatives had gone to bed.  And this was her income!  With that kind of constraint, she was able to crank out a novel as good as The Perpetual Curate (1864), a novel AGAT* - it’s extraordinary.  And here I am dithering over a dang blog post.

The young, virtuous Perpetual Curate of St. Roque’s church in Carlingford is too poor to marry.  He comes from a wealthy family, but is, unfortunately, not only the fourth son, but the second clergyman, so the family living is unavailable.  His three maiden aunts own another living, and everyone assumes that it will go to the nephew once the current elderly occupant expires.  Except the Curate is a High Church Anglican, and the aunts are Low, and they are all principled, and stubborn.

One might pause here and note that, looked at in a certain way, the mid-19th century Anglican church appears to be hopelessly corrupt.  For the Curate, however, this is simply a fact to be faced.  He thinks he can’t marry Lucy on his current income, and the only path to a more money is a violation of his conscience.  How much is love worth, not in pounds, but in principles?  Should the Curate compromise with his aunts on religious matters in order to be able to marry?  Our hero is not so sure himself.  Nor was this reader.

This single conflict was sufficiently interesting for me, although it has to be expanded in various thematically relevant directions to fill out the book.  Another clergyman, that older brother, decides to convert to Catholicism.  Then another brother entangles the Curate in his dissolute life.  Church politics, town gossip, death, gardening – what else could I want from a novel?

It’s an easy book to recommend to anyone with any patience for Victorian novels, its humor a nice balance of sly wit about human weakness and some real sweetness.  The plot is genuinely clever in places - there are several fine reverses and small twists.  It is, like Trollope, image-poor, but also, like Trollope, character-rich.  It would make a good BBC telepic.  Jeremy Northam would be perfect as the Curate, except he’s now too old.  One of the aunts is, no, must be, Judi Dench.  Those aunts are hilarious.

Rohan Maitzen, writing about a later Oliphant novel (Hester), said it left her “feeling that thematic or philosophical interpretations are somewhat beside the point.”  I’m guessing that The Perpetual Curate is richer than Hester, but Rohan is correct.  I want to write about The Perpetual Curate for the rest of the week, but I have not the slightest interest in or insight about Oliphant’s themes or meaning.  I’m just going to write about craft.  The craft is a thing to behold.  This is a well-written novel .

A while ago, I expressed doubt that there could be eight Margaret Oliphant books worth reading.  Now, having read two, the existence of six more seems not just plausible, but likely.  But can any of them be as good as The Perpetual Curate?

* AGAT = As Good As Trollope.


  1. AGAT? Now if her books could just become as available as Trollope's, I might even try a few ;)

  2. Amateur Reader, I'm encouraged by your comment that Oliphant's "craft is a thing to behold." However, I'm a little discouraged by your remark that you could easily imagine Judi Dench playing one of the characters. Any idea how this book would work out for someone like me, who isn't as enamored of the Victorians as the rest of "you lot" in the book blogging world?

  3. Was that a knock on Judi Dench? I'll pretend I didn't see that.

    The Trollope comparison is precise. Anyone irritated by Trollope will be no happier with The Perpetual Curate.

    Tony - Dang right. Now that I've really given her a try, the lack of availability is a puzzle to me. Readers enamored of the Victorians would like this book as much as any number of its peers.

    As for me - enamored? No, no, no. I work on a book-by-book basis.

  4. You got me with

    "Church politics, town gossip, death, gardening"

    Gardening? I can't resist!

  5. Eight good Oliphant novels? Dead Easy

    1. Hester
    2. Phoebe Junior (very likeable heroine's quest to marry for money. Sub plot of the love affair between an Anglican vicar's daughter and a radical Dissenting preacher is about as romantic as you can get)
    3. Miss Marjoribanks
    4. The Sorceress
    5. Cuckoo in the Nest (another positive gold-digger- barmaid marries the Squire's son)
    6. The Ladies Lindores
    7. A Beleaguered City (magic realist- the dead return and take over a small French town)
    8. The Doctor's Family

  6. Thanks for the Oliphant recommendations. You've got three on there that were not in whatever sources I was using. I certainly agree about The Doctor's Family, the only one on the list I have read.