Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The nebbish and his mother - Perfect victory attended the gentle widow in this passage of arms - this is still Salem Chapel

Margaret Oliphant moved in increments.  The 1863 novella The Rector is about an Anglican priest who moves to Carlingford and discovers that he is inadequate to the vocation.  He is, to his sorrow, a bad priest.  In Salem Chapel (1863), young Vincent is a Dissenter, not an Anglican, and has a real gift for preaching and argument, but he too learns that he is a bad priest.  The next novel, The Perpetual Curate (1864), stars a good priest, an ideal priest, as if Oliphant is still turning over the idea.

Mr. Vincent, whatever his talents, is too immature for his position.  He is in his early twenties but typically behaves like a fifteen year old.  He is self-absorbed, rude to his elders, dismissive of their advice, and baffled by and often even afraid of women.  The most frightening is Phoebe Tozer, “plump and pink, and full of dimples” (Ch. 1), who openly offers sex – at one point she brings the minister a leftover jelly!  “Mr. Vincent turned very red, and looked at the basket as if he would like nothing better than to pitch it into the street.”  When I say she offers sex, I mean through marriage, that she is available for marriage.  Vincent responds, mental fifteen year old that he is, by falling in love with the most unattainable woman in a fifty mile radius.

I remember wondering, early in the novel, what Oliphant was going to do with this plotline.  I thought, there is no way this nebbish is going to end up with this woman.  Oliphant was ahead of me.  There is no way.  This is the minister’s state of mind at the end of the novel:

Vincent had arrived at such a climax of personal existence that Susan [his ill sister] had but a dim and secondary place in his thoughts.  He was absorbed in his own troubles and plans and miseries.  (Ch. 39)

Much of this is just borrowed from Colleen’s recent post.  Vincent is a good character, well-drawn, credible, but surprising in plausible ways. A little hard to take sometimes. Why is he the way he is?  The novel’s next most important character explains it all.  He is a mama’s boy, or so we learn when we meet mama.

She has one tremendous chapter in the middle of the book.  Her son is away, ineffectively pursuing the sensation plot, leaving her to hold the fort in Carlingford.  The sensation stuff takes place outside of Carlingford, the comedy inside, so the mother is now part of the comedy.  She spends the day visiting the parishioners, defending her son, throwing cold water on pink Phoebe Tozer (“To think of that pink creature having designs upon her boy”), crushing all dissent, and destroying his enemies.  “Holding the fort” Was the wrong metaphor.  Mrs. Vincent is on offense:

Perfect victory attended the gentle widow in this passage of arms.  Her assailant fell back, repeating in a subdued tone, “Well, I’m sure!”  (Ch. 21)

I wish more of the thriller plot had been not only out of town but offstage.  Oliphant could let the reader hear about it second-hand, or read about it in the newspaper, like most of the characters in the novel do.  Maybe it should have been told from the point of view of poor pink Phoebe Tozer.  Then I could have had more scenes of combat over tea.  But that is saved for the next novel, for The Perpetual Curate.  Oliphant takes small steps.


  1. What did you think of the ending? As I recall, it was a little... creepy.

  2. Creepy, creepy - oh, do you mean the business with the idiot girl? It is not creepy within the text, is it? It does present an artistic failure, as it is used to pump some unearned uplift into the last couple of pages.

    Or if it is creepy within the text, it is because of the fundamental confusion of the sensation plot - exactly what crime or transgression is being committed here? Perhaps the confusion is in some way Vincent's. Now that is an interesting idea.

    More weight to my argument that the novel should never have left Carlingford. Once Vincent leaves the city limits, the story is over.

    1. As I recall (a long time since I read it), the books ends with him basically grooming a young girl for future marriage. Now that's creepy...

    2. Ah - you misremember it then! It is not that creepy. Vincent is too ineffective and watery to do any such thing. His sister and mother - who he never visits because that is the kind of son he is - raise the girl in France. Vincent has nothing to do with it.

      When he finally meets the girl again, after "two or three years," he reacts oddly, in a way that can justify the charge of "creepy." It is just not as strong as you remember.

  3. When I read this I was more interested in the women in the novel and what Oliphant did with them. By the end of the series when I was better acquainted with Trollopes Barchester I was even more interested in what she was doing which makes me want to find the time to read her all over again.

  4. Dagnabbit, I forgot about those posts. You wrote the one where you tracked down the rectory carpet. Thanks for reminding me.

    The women in the social comedy of Salem Chapel are outstanding. In the sensation plot, they become devices. The role of Mr. Tozer is especially interesting here, since he is acutely aware of the women around him, of their power and role as well as his own, while Vincent seems unaware that he is almost complete dependency on the work of the women.

  5. I'm not sure Tony is misremembering the creepiness of the ending, actually...I mean, think about it--who would be better matched, emotionally, for Arthur Vincent than a beautiful idiot girl? She'd still be the more sophisticated of the two. Maybe it's creepy because Arthur finds her attractive and doesn't find himself creepy for doing so!

  6. Right, we non-Victorians are likely to find the very fact that Artie is so attracted to the girl creepy. But Tony says that Vincent himself groomed her. No way.

    Also, to marry her, Vincent would have to get through his mother, who would have other plans. Phoebe Tozer was too far beneath her, after all.

  7. Correction (of my own comment) - he is *about to* start grooming her. he has just decided who his future wife should be...

  8. That is possible, yes, although "grooming" still sounds much to active for Vincent, and at that point unnecessary. He will take her "as is."