A new Victorian author! New to me that is; obviously no actual new Victorian authors have emerged since 1901. The rector and The doctor’s family first appeared in 1863, the good people at Virago Classics republished it in 1988, I found it in a second-hand bookshop in 2013, and now I’ve finally got round to reading and reviewing it in 2016.
The book is made up of two short novels, both set in the same fictional provincial Victorian town of Carlingford, where Mrs Oliphant later set other novels. The first story, ‘The rector’, is very short indeed – it can hardly even be called a novella, at a mere 35 pages. As well as being short, its plot is so slight as to be almost nonexistant. It would probably have been better suited to being one plot strand amongst many in a more complicated novel. ‘The rector’ features that staple starting point for stories set in closed communities: an incoming stranger – in this case Carlingford’s new vicar – and his attempts to fit into the town. The residents of Carlingford are intrigued as to what sort of religion he will provide: ‘high’ with all the aesthetically pleasing rituals of incense and solemn ceremony or ‘low’ with long, earnest sermons. Another source of local speculation is whether he, a middle-aged bachelor, will succumb to any of the eligible women of Carlingford. The turn the story takes subverted what I was expecting. Although I felt slightly shortchanged by the (to my mind) anti-climactic ending, I do admire Mrs Oliphant for not sticking to the usual jaded, predictable endings.
Another fresh element in Mrs Oliphant’s writing is her irreverent humour. It can be seen in the scene where the rector’s gossipy elderly mother, Mrs Proctor, interrogates him about his new parishioners. She is somewhat hard of hearing and her son is worried that his shouted replies will be overheard by the servants in the kitchen. Far from sharing this worry, Mrs Proctor finds his agitation highly amusing:
“But now tell me, my dear,” said old Mrs Proctor, “who’s Mr Wodehouse?”
With despairing calmness, the Rector approached his voice to her ear. “He’s a churchwarden!” cried the unfortunate man, in a shrill whisper.
“He’s what? – you forget I don’t hear very well. I’m a great deal deafer, Morley my dear, than I was the last time you were in Devonshire. What did you say Mr Wodehouse was?”
“He’s an ass!” exclaimed the baited Rector.
Mrs Oliphant’s quiet subversion is more apparent, and more satisfyingly worked out, in the second story, ‘The doctor’s family’. This story also kicks off with the arrival of newcomers, this time connected to that other pillar of provincial society, the town’s doctor. The doctor’s lazy and dissipated elder brother is suddenly revealed to have acquired a wife and children during his stay in Australia. They turn up announced in the doctor’s house, along with the wife’s sister, Nettie. The doctor is instantly attracted to his sister-in-law, the vibrant Nettie Underwood. Nettie’s charm for the doctor – and for the 21st-century reader – is her feisty determination to run her life on her own terms:
Nettie obstinately refused to be said to do her duty. She was doing her own will with an imperious distinctness and energy – having her own way – displaying no special virtue, but a determined wilfulness.
Nettie’s confident self-sufficiency reflects Mrs Oliphant’s own personality. Widowed in her 30s, she had two young children to support and was pregnant with a third; she then found out that her husband had left her with £1000 of debt. Undaunted, she girded her loins and increased her writing output, eventually producing over 120 novels during her lifetime. She also financially supported her brothers, nephews and nieces. Her life was a firm rebuttal of the popular Victorian notion of the helpless woman reliant on men; no wonder she had no time to waste on such women in her own writing.
Where does Mrs Oliphant rank amongst the pantheon of Victorian authors? The rector and the doctor’s family doesn’t have the emotional punch of the Brontë sisters or Thomas Hardy, nor is Mrs Oliphant as technically accomplished as Dickens or Eliot, or as original as Wilkie Collins. The mostly-cosy world of Carlingford is similar in its style and its preoccupations to that of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford or Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire. However, Mrs Oliphant’s own interesting life, and the quiet subversion she shows in her novels, made me warm to her more than I have done to, say, Anthony Trollope, and I will probably hunt out some more of her books.