Series Love: The Chronicles of Carlingford by Margaret Oliphant

For some reason I haven’t found much to enjoy in newly published books recently, and have instead been losing myself in the nineteenth century. It was while looking for new old authors that I stumbled across a BBC article highlighting lesser known classics including Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant. (It was the promise of a Victorian Emma which sold me.) 

Miss Marjoribanks is the sixth of seven Chronicles of Carlingford, which consist of two short stories, The Executor and The Rector, one short novel and four long novels. All but one were published in the period 1861-65 (Oliphant was famously prolific), the last, Phoebe Junior, appeared in 1876. Carlingford is a fictional small town with no major industry and the stories focus primarily on the wealthy people of Grange Lane or the tradespeople of the town (there is also a poor district but the characters there never assume prominence).

I was immediately captivated by Miss Marjoribanks. Lucilla Marjoribanks is an educated and confident young woman who decides to take her father, the local doctor, and Carlingford society generally in hand. She begins by holding regular Thursday evening parties to introduce the population to culture, before embarking on a series of adventures including promoting a candidate for parliament. In the third volume, several years on, a more sombre Miss Marjoribanks reflects on her choices and whether life has turned out as she hoped after all.

Miss Marjoribanks is an engaging and funny social comedy, with some wonderfully acerbic observations, but it is much more. From the beginning you see Oliphant’s gift for characterisation. It begins, perhaps unpromisingly for a comic novel, with the death of Mrs Marjoribanks. Her daughter, Lucilla, views this as an opportunity to return home from school and start managing her father. He is determined to protect his precious routines. There is humour in their struggle but Dr Marjoribanks also feels sadness, not because he is grieving his wife, but because he is not, because there is no one who much misses her.

Miss Marjoribanks is not like Jane Austen’s Emma in that much of the humour revolves around Emma not being as clever or perceptive as she thinks. Lucilla really is capable. Dr Marjoribanks reflects that if only she were a son she could do anything. Strong, determined women (often bailing out feckless or foolish men) are a feature in all the Carlingford novels – perhaps because Oliphant herself was the breadwinner for her large extended family.

by (Anthony) Frederick Augustus Sandys, chalk, 1881

While love stories play a part in the Chronicles, Oliphant is clear-eyed about romance and its limits. Many of her characters confront the difficulties of marrying on a limited income. In The Perpetual Curate, the protagonist, Frank Wentworth, is in love with Lucy Wodehouse, but while he remains a curate, he is aware he cannot marry and ask her to live with him in (relative) poverty. There is a living within the gift of his evangelical aunts, but Mr Wentworth feels he cannot compromise his high church principles.

Meanwhile, the wife of his new rector, Mrs Morgan, is adapting to marriage after a ten year engagement. She reflects ruefully on how this new start might have been easier if she and her husband had been able to marry young, in the first flush of passion, before they had such fixed habits and opinions.

Another thing that is impressive is the range of genre elements across the series. Oliphant manages to shift and absorb the latest trends, while still maintaining the character of the whole. In Salem Chapel (in my view the least successful of the novels, although it was very popular in its day) she takes on elements of the novel of sensation. The protagonist, Arthur Vincent, becomes embroiled in a rather overblown and underbaked story involving a secret ward, a quest for vengeance, and the disappearance of his sister.

However, in amongst that is a fascinating depiction of the Dissenters. Mr Vincent is a talented student and, as the new minister of Salem Chapel, he hopes to mix with the best of Carlingford society. Instead he finds his duties involve social engagement with the deacons of the chapel, who are tradespeople. They are welcoming and hospitable, but by no means deferential, and as the plot takes hold make clear their displeasure when he appears to devote more interest to his family troubles than his duties.

What’s interesting is that Oliphant doesn’t take sides. She portrays Mr Vincent as both snobbish and understandably frustrated, as he looks for intellectual as well as social engagement. Meanwhile his congregation, led by the butterman, Mr Tozer, are at times comical and at times profoundly dignified in their dogged refusal to bow down to authority. Mr Tozer shows both loyalty and compassion, while maintaining his own principles.

In Phoebe Junior we see the effects of social mobility, and its limits. Phoebe is the granddaughter of Mr Tozer and his wife. Her mother, also Phoebe, married well and has left Carlingford behind, but when the Tozers need care, the young Phoebe leaves their London home to stay with her grandparents. While they are affluent and have retired to Grange Lane, supposedly the ultimate marker of status, she is acutely aware of the class differences between them and her own circle. Despite that, she is resourceful in making a home and friends for herself in the town. She also has to make the age-old choice between romantic love, and wealth and status.

One thing I find startling about Oliphant’s books is how direct the characters and dialogue are. Often in Victorian literature, the conventions and stylised speech are difficult to penetrate. Someone will become a social pariah because of a chance comment and I’ll have to go back and reread to work out what they meant. With Oliphant’s characters you are in no doubt.

Although all but the last two books have male protagonists, it is the female characters who are often most memorable. In the short novel The Doctor’s Family, Dr Rider’s brother returns from the colonies, a penniless drunk. Matters become even worse when an equally incompetent wife and their children also arrive and Dr Rider fears he will have to support them all. However, the wife’s sister, Nettie Underwood, is determined to give up her own life to support them from her own small income, regardless of the doctor’s increasing infatuation with her.

Here Oliphant again shows the subtlety of her characterisation. Rather than making Nettie purely noble and self-sacrificing, she can also be seen as controlling and enjoying her air of competence. (It also raises the question of whether she is just enabling bad behaviour. If she walked away, perhaps her wastrel relatives would be forced to take action for themselves.)

Oliphant excels not only in her depiction of individuals, but of a community. It’s fascinating to see the interaction of people and classes in Carlingford. She also shows how waves of collective belief and behaviour take hold, casting an unflinching but compassionate eye over human foibles.

In The Perpetual Curate, Mr Wentworth is accused of scandalous behaviour with a young woman from the town. He refuses to defend himself, believing that his five years of conscientious work in Carlingford should speak for itself. However, the townsfolk are swayed, first one way then the other, as rumours and stories and – very occasionally – facts emerge. Like a social media pile-on, a few opinion formers can easily turn the crowd.

While Oliphant’s plots often rely on coincidence and there are few surprises, there is a profound realism in her insight into human nature. She sees how we are all in conflict with ourselves — how our deepest longings and petty niggles jostle side by side in our untidy minds, how the nicest person can have unkind thoughts, how emotions constantly colour apparently rational choices.

View The Chronicles of Carlingford on Goodreads

Want to read more? You can download the Chronicles of Carlingford, and many more of Margaret Oliphant’s novels, from Project Gutenberg (free/donation)

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