After the failure of Mr. Proctor in The Rector, the new rector, Mr. Morgan, has arrived to take charge of Carlingford Church. But he is almost immediately offended by the activities of the Perpetual Curate of St. Roque’s. Failing any leadership from the first two rectors but with their permission, the young Perpetual Curate has established a place of worship and a school in the poor area of what Mr. Morgan views as his own district. Now the curate refuses to give up these activities.
If you’ve read any of the earlier books in the Chronicles of Carlingford, you’ve had glimpses of the Perpetual Curate, Frank Wentworth, coming and going from the green door on Grange Lane, where the Wodehouses live. He and Miss Wodehouse have been working together on their charities, and he and Lucy Wodehouse are innocently in love. This love remains unspoken, for a Perpetual Curate cannot afford to marry.
The curate’s poor but apparently blissful and blameless life is first disturbed by the arrival of his aunts, just before Easter. His aunts have the gift of a living to bestow, which if given to Frank Wentworth would allow him to marry, and it will soon be available. But the commanding Miss Leonora Wentworth has religious views that are much more stern than Frank Wentworth’s, and he knows she will disapprove of the lilies on the altar and the surplice he wears in conducting his services. Frank’s adoring yet foolish (and irritating) Aunt Dora has supposed that Miss Leonora will be swayed in Frank’s favor if they attend his Easter service, but Frank knows it will not work that way, and it doesn’t.
Then Frank is suddenly besieged on all sides. Miss Wodehouse has asked him to secretly take in a lodger, a man who seems to be disreputable. Talk has just begun about this when Frank makes the mistake of escorting Rosa Elsworthy, the shopkeeper’s niece, down Grange Lane to her home one evening. Her foolish aunt and uncle make too much of this, even though he tells them sharply not to let her walk around alone at night. Then he is called home unexpectedly to try to talk his older brother Gerald out of resigning his post and turning to Rome.
This novel has some of the most endearing characters I have encountered so far in Oliphant’s work. Frank Wentworth at first believes naively that, having lived and worked blamelessly in Carlingford for years, people will understand his character, which is charitable and upright. But as circumstances build against him, even his friends have moments of doubt.
As a secondary plot, we occasionally visit Mrs. Morgan. She has waited ten years to marry Mr. Morgan and is disappointed to find him capable of pettiness and malice in regard to Frank Wentworth.
I just loved this novel. Mrs. Oliphant is able to create great suspense over a conjunction of trivial incidents that make Frank Wentworth look guilty of misbehavior. She introduces characters who are lovable, funny, and irritating, some all at the same time. This is another great novel from Mrs. Oliphant.