Since I do not want to write about Salem Chapel all week, I will resort to unconnected numbered points.
1. Yesterday I suggested that Salem Chapel should have written from the bewildered, teary point of view of the “pink and plump” Phoebe Tozer, the butterman’s daughter. In a comment, followed by a chain of post reading, Desperate Reader reminded me that thirteen years later Oliphant would publish Phoebe Junior, in which the title character is Phoebe Tozer’s daughter. I have not read this one, but based on the Desperate description, I can see that Oliphant’s own thoughts were not so far off from mine. (Also, see Desperate Reader on Salem Chapel here).
2. Oliphant was a sponge. The Carlingford novels and their clergymen are openly derivative of Trollope’s Barchester series, which still had two novels to go when Salem Chapel was published. Then there is her use of the sensation plot, a genre only three years old, although melodrama is as old as the hills.
Maybe even more interesting is the clear evidence that Oliphant had been carefully reading the hot new novelist of 1859, George Eliot, author at this point of Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner, so not our Eliot but a smaller one, the author of tragicomedies about rural carpenters and mill owners, creator of scenes in which a small town’s tradesmen argue about the breed of a cow or who gets the family china. Salem Chapel’s comedic plot features the same class of people in a somewhat more urban setting.
The Perpetual Curate moves up a notch or two in social class, so I had not made the connection, but the Tozers and Tullivers could comfortably exist in each other’s novels.
Penelope Fitzgerald claims, in her fine introduction to the Virago Salem Chapel, that the anonymously serialized novel was sometimes thought to actually be by George Eliot, which “caused Oliphant an indescribable mixture of pleasure and annoyance.”
3. One example of Oliphant’s humor. The congregation has just heard a guest pastor:
… they were wedded to one [Vincent]; but the bond of union between themselves and their pastor was far from being indissoluble, and they contemplated this new aspirant to their favour with feelings stimulated and piquant, as a not inconsolable husband, likely to become a widower, might contemplate the general female public, out of which candidates for the problematically vacant place might arise. (Ch. 21)
4. And an example of Oliphant’s descriptive powers:
… it was to look at a female figure which came slowly up, dimming out the reflection on the wet stones as it crossed one streak of lamplight after another. (Ch. 9)
Maybe she had been reading Dickens, too.
5. I have complained about the dull plottiness of part of the novel. Near the end of the novel, Oliphant recognizes my complaint. Adelaide Tufton is a superb minor character, the invalid daughter of the previous minister who spends her life sitting next to a giant geranium knitting and collecting gossip. She is enjoyably free from social constraint. Vincent almost accidentally visits her in Chapter 41, within a few pages of the end of the novel, where he is horrified to hear her reduce everything he is suffering, every trial he has encountered throughout the novel, including an entirely separate Persuasion-like underplot I have not even mentioned, to small town chatter.
The poor minister thrust back his chair from the table, and came roughly against the stand of the great geranium, which had to be adjusted and covered his retreat… she did not show any pleasurable consciousness of her triumph; she kept knitting on, looking at him with her pale blue eyes.
Well, I got a lot of pleasure from it. Well done, Miss Tufton. Well done, Mrs. Oliphant.