Thursday, August 12, 2010

Not without seducing beauties of design - artful Margaret Oliphant

Mrs. Morgan is the wife of the rector of Carlingford.  She is, perhaps, the fourteenth most important character in The Perpetual Curate.  Her loathing of a carpet in the rectory is a small but crucial part of the plot of the novel.  One of the treats of a “small” novel like this is watching the author take some inconsequential detail and weave it into the substance of the book.  The Perpetual Curate is especially well-plotted in this sense.  Once the characters are set in motion, the story proceeds inexorably, with only minor exceptions.*

But nothing is actually inevitable.  It is all artifice, a creation of Margaret Oliphant.  It’s all a trick!

Chapter XLV, right near the end of the book, belongs to Mrs. Morgan.  The novel has an omniscient narrator, but we stay close to Mrs. Morgan here.

Mr Leeson was to come to dinner that day legitimately by invitation, and Mrs Morgan, who felt it would be a little consolation to disappoint the hungry Curate for once, was making up her mind, as she went up-stairs, not to have the All-Souls pudding, of which he showed so high an appreciation…  And Mrs Morgan took out some stockings to darn, as being a discontented occupation, and was considering within herself what simple preparation she could have instead of the All-Souls pudding, when, looking up suddenly, she saw, not Mr Proctor, but the Rector, standing looking down upon her within a few steps of her chair. (487-8)

To whom is darning a “discontented occupation”?  To Oliphant, or to Mrs Morgan?  Both, surely.  The horrible carpet appeared a page earlier.  The pudding theme is introduced in this passage.  Later in the chapter, Oliphant pulls in the fern theme, and the “wall that blocks the train” theme.  These are the attributes of Mrs. Morgan that have been strung through the novel.  Note how concrete they are.  Yet they are not necessarily “actual” objects, but objects in her thoughts, which is also where they exist for the reader.  The darning theme, by the way, is a new one, linking together bits of this single chapter.  For example:

She gave a sigh as she spoke, for she thought of the Virginian creeper and the five feet of new wall at that side of the garden, which had just been completed, to shut out the view of the train.  Life does not contain any perfect pleasure.  But when Mrs Morgan stooped to lift up some stray reels of cotton which the Rector's clumsy fingers had dropped out of her workbox, her eye was again attracted by the gigantic roses and tulips on the carpet, and content and satisfaction filled her heart. (493)

That, now that is how this chapter works. Two pages later:

She changed her mind in a moment about the All-Souls pudding, and even added, in her imagination, another dish to the dinner, without pausing to think that that also was much approved by Mr Leeson; and then her thoughts took another turn, and such a vision of a perfect carpet for a drawing-room - something softer and more exquisite than ever came out of mortal loom; full of repose and tranquillity, yet not without seducing beauties of design; a carpet which would never obtrude itself, but yet would catch the eye by dreamy moments in the summer twilight or over the winter fire – flashed upon the imagination of the Rector's wife. (495)

Pudding, carpet, imagination.

The chapter ends with Mrs. Morgan leaving the house and wandering about Carlingford for a single two-page paragraph.  It begins with “her vision of tasteful and appropriate furniture,” but then moves outward.  She thinks of or glimpses all of the other major characters.  She picks ferns “to decorate the peaches.”  More gardening.  The carpet again.  The difference between what Margaret Oliphant is doing here, and what Virginia Woolf is doing in Mrs. Dalloway, is real, but not large.

The substance of the chapter occurs in between everything I’ve mentioned, all of which, in a worse novel, would be omitted.  But Mrs. Morgan’s inner life, full of puddings and carpets and ferns – that’s the art of the novel.

* A couple of characters, related to the protagonists, know each other by coincidence, the only real bit of plot-fixing in the novel.  Not counting the end, which I want to save for tomorrow.


  1. This has been a great series of posts, AR! I haven't actually finished The Perpetual Curate yet but you've revived my enthusiasm for it. Your points about the craft of it are particularly well taken. Perhaps writing over 80 novels is the way to really get a grip on the kinds of details you note here!

  2. The excerpts you've included from The Perpetual Curate have convinced me this is a book I would probably like a lot, and perhaps even love. The narrative voice seems confident yet understated, and I love the focus in this post on threads of thought that tie scenes & characters together.

  3. Rohan, thanks. The hack is an interesting category. It's clear that by the time Oliphant came up with the Carlingford idea, she was skilled enough to know what to do with it.

    Emily - that's a good description. Oliphant is in the Thackeray \ Trollope omnisicent narrator line, but she is pulling it back towards limited third person, in that sense like George Eliot. The narrator's direct comments are often more like asides, often quite witty.

    A related technique, which I could have illustrated from the same chapter, is the way she stays with one character but then can slip into another character for just a line or two. We're with Mrs Morgan, but three or four times, we get just a bit of her husband. Eudora Welty was a master of this sort of thing.