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.