Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Some ways in which Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel is interesting - his heart might have rejected every secondary matter.

Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant, 1863, the first long novel of the Carlingford Chronicles.  That is the text of the moment.  Strangely, Colleen at Jam & Idleness was reading it at the same time, by coincidence, and just wrote about it, which is handy for me.

Oliphant takes two big risks with Salem Chapel which make the novel both interesting and frustrating.  They are:

1.  The hero is a nebbish, and sometimes something worse.  Sometimes a “bit of a jackass,” says Colleen.  The kind of character violent readers want to slap and strangle.

2.  The plot and structure of the novel are hybrid.  A social comedy suddenly transforms, about a quarter through, into the hot thing of the early 1860s, a Sensation Novel, with (or with suggestions of) kidnappings, murder, brain fever, and the like.  But no, and this is what is interesting – a sensation novel is laid on top of the social comedy, which sort of flows along underneath the thriller story.  Or maybe the comedy is on top.  The two types of story interact in some curious ways, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes cleverly.

The story:

Vincent is a newly-minted, ambitious minister, eager to change the world, just hired by Salem Chapel in Carlingford.  He quickly discovers that his parishioners do not really need changing.  The shopkeepers are prosperous and the laborers well-behaved, their sins venial rather than mortal.  Carlingford is wasted on a reformer.  Here we have the basis for a comic novel like a reversed Cold Comfort Farm.  The new minister will, in the climax, flee the town because everyone is  too good.  There could be scenes where he tries to corrupt his flock in order to be able to reform it.  I have started making up my own story, one Oliphant did not write.

Before my imagined story gets going, Vincent’s mother appears and the thriller gets moving.  Vincent’s sister is planning to marry a man of, it now seems, dubious character.  Matters escalate as detailed above – kidnapping, vengeance, shooting, police inspectors, etc.

Vincent races around England trying to straighten things out, but since he is a nebbish he is completely ineffective.  Perhaps the point of the dual plots is to plunge the naïve young minister into a world of depravity and evil, where he is tested by a trial of courage which allows him to truly find his calling as a man of God.  That is not bad, either, as another story that Oliphant did not write, although Salem Chapel is a kind of Bildungsroman, even if it has as little Bildung as possible.  Vincent is, if anything, even worse once the sensation plot calms down.  Oliphant says so directly, in Chapter 38, almost at the end of the book:

His own affairs were urgent in his mind.  He could not keep his thoughts from dwelling upon Salem and what had occurred there [the social comedy plot], though no one else thought of it.  Had he known the danger in which his sister lay, his heart might have rejected every secondary matter.

I am as bad as callow Vincent, in that I thought the secondary matter, the comedy was excellent while the sensation plot was weaker, by which I mean more ordinary stuff, more contrived.   Side by side, though, some there is some artistic movement.  So I will write a little more about that.

The sensation plot has its own interest as a case study in how to adapt modern values – I mean mine – to the Victorian values on which much of the action depends.  That could be fun to write about.  The secondary story trains me in how to read the primary story.

I could explore the nebbishness of Vincent.  One other major character, Vincent’s mother, is also quite good.  In the sensation novel, she is a cliché, while in the comedy, she is original, forceful, and funny.  The mother’s personality perhaps explains some of the son’s milquetoastishness.

The agenda could be extended.  I do not want to write about Salem Chapel all week, but I could.  I still might.


  1. Like a reversed Cold Comfort Farm--yes, yes!

    And you're right that Mrs. Vincent's character works well in one genre and is lame in the other. Arthur is always a jackass, however. Which makes me think this is a novel maybe as much (more even?) about age vs. youth than gender issues--I'm thinking of how Mrs. Vincent and Mr. Tozer know what's what but AV is just too in love with himself and slepen al the nyght with open ye. Although, actually, both are about who can and/or is forced to make compromises to get by in life. I don't know where I'm going here; as you were.

  2. Yes, age vs youth - Salem Chapel is a psychologically insightful portrait of arrested adolescence in a young man, which makes the novel amusingly relevant to the youth of today, or so I have been told. What do I know about the youth of today.

    So Vincent is indifferent to experience and skeered of women.

    I should write this up as a blog post, and include the mother by contrast, especially that amazing sequence where she conquers Carlingford.,

  3. Your most basic summary--comedy: excellent, sensation plot: weak--reminds me of the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust I saw the other day. I didn't appreciate the mix as much as you might have done here. I do like the nebbish-as-hero conceit, though, which I think we might have discussed on your blog before.

  4. I have reservations, some of which I express in the new post. I could not help wondering what the novel would be like if more of the sensation business took place offstage. It might risk making the hero too mysterious, as if his self-absorption and jackassery might be justified if we only knew the truth. But then there would be more room for the better stuff.

    I respect the experiment, though, the way the two distinct types of story overlay each other. The intersections feel like something new. But the balance is off. I have to remind myself that the sensation novel is at this point only three years old.

    A Handful of Dust, the novel, is curious for the way it lurches from one kind of story to another, sometimes in a way that is frustrating.