I was in the mood for something Victorian not too long ago, and Margaret Oliphant’s The Perpetual Curate was exactly what I needed. It’s a long (relatively long, 500 not-too-dense pages), absorbing story with interesting characters and an amusing tone. Its mood is light, but it deals with serious situations and genuine problems, so it never felt frivolous.
The story is about Frank Wentworth, the perpetual curate of the title, a young man who loves his work but understands that it doesn’t pay enough for him to marry the woman he loves, Lucy Wodehouse. In order for that to happen, he would have to become a rector. This is actually quite possible, as he has three aunts who will soon have a living to bestow, but, alas, Frank and the aunts do not see eye to eye when it comes to how one should run a church service. The aunts lean toward the evangelical side, while Frank is more solidly, traditionally Anglican. The aunts unexpectedly show up to Frank’s Easter service, and are shocked at the sight of flowers on the alter and are displeased with his sermon. Frank realizes that those pesky flowers, which he is not sure he cares all that much about, may have ruined his chances for married happiness.
Oliphant piles problem after problem on poor Frank’s shoulders. Not only does he have the uptight aunts to deal with, but he is seen in what looks like a compromising situation with a pretty, young shop girl, and rumors begin to fly. The town that has stood behind him for the five years or so he has worked there now starts to have doubts. Then the local rector, newly arrived in the town, gets angry at him for running services for the poor in his district. And then his brother, Gerald, decides that he wants to convert to Catholicism and become a Catholic priest, even if it means abandoning his wife. There is also the strange, unpleasant, badly-dressed man who shows up in Frank’s lodgings, and whom Frank takes in for mysterious reasons, even though his neighbors are none too pleased.
Much of the novel has Frank running around from one disaster to another, trying to figure out how to appease his family, friends, and parishioners while at the same time staying true to his principles. Fortunately, as Oliphant frequently points out, Frank is young and can bounce back from disasters quickly. But still, it’s chilling to read a convincing description of how suddenly, and for no real fault of Frank’s, everything can suddenly go wrong. People misread events and misunderstand conversations, and because Frank can sometimes be a little oblivious, he doesn’t always realize when this happens. Suddenly his world is falling apart around him, and he hardly knows how it happened. This can happen to any of us, the novel implies, at any time, and there is little to be done about it.
The things that could be done to rectify the situation Frank rejects as impossible because of his strong sense of pride and honor. He can’t simply go to his aunts and declare he really didn’t mean it about the flowers because he can’t stoop that low, and he can’t simply explain that he doesn’t care anything about the pretty shop girl because he doesn’t want to dignify the accusations. This sense of pride and honor, which he and Lucy share, becomes so powerful and his and Lucy’s feelings are so delicate, that they threaten to become absurd. In fact, by the end of the novel I was wondering whether Oliphant was having a little fun gently mocking them. This suspicion was reinforced by the way Oliphant frequently draws attention near the novel’s end to the fact that it is a novel that she’s writing, as though she is pulling away from the narrative a bit to evaluate her characters more directly than she ever did before. Endings are tricky, she seems to be saying, and sometimes they can be a little silly or unrealistic, so don’t take it all too seriously.
The Perpetual Curate is part of a series of novels called “The Chronicles of Carlingford,” and this novel is the fourth book of six. I’m pleased to know this, because it means I can return to this world and to these characters five more times if I want to. If I’m able to find the books, that is. I will certainly be on the lookout for more Oliphant in the future.