Best Book of the Week!
Because of the order the books were listed in on Wikipedia, I thought that Salem Chapel was the first of Margaret Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford. However, the introduction to the book says it is the second. When I started to read it, I thought it was going to be, like Miss Marjoribanks, a light satire on society, only a different level of society. But it is much more dramatic than that.
Arthur Vincent proudly takes up his first clergy position as the Dissenting vicar of Salem Chapel at Carlingford. He is an educated gentleman of some ability, and he is certain he will soon be an accepted member of the best Carlingford society. But he receives a shock when he meets his congregation of buttermen, poulterers, and greengrocers and their wives. He soon finds, too, that he is expected to bend to their wishes, as they pay his salary.
Arthur is a proud young man of good family, and this doesn’t sit well with him. Still, he makes an impression with his first sermon and dutifully goes about his business until he is struck by the sight of the beautiful, young Dowager Lady Western. Although a mutual acquaintance tries to warn him not to make anything of her warm manner to him, as she is like that with everyone, he doesn’t pay attention. Soon, he is informed that his parishioners are displeased. He has been seen paying a call in Grange Lane, the home of the upper-class residents of Carlingford (and setting of Miss Marjoribanks), who all attend St. Roque’s.
Arthur has also made the acquaintance of a less prosperous woman, Mrs. Hilyard, an impoverished gentlewoman who takes in sewing. Mrs. Hilyard is an odd and unfortunate woman, and it is a favor she asks of Arthur and his family that drives the larger actions of the plot.
Up until the major events are set in motion, I found the book amusing, as when Arthur, moonstruck by the sight of Lady Western, spends an entire week daydreaming about her. His congregation interprets this lack of activity as a scholarly application to his sermon and is impressed.
This novel contains wonderful characters who can be a bit Dickensian, like the well-meaning butterman Deacon Tozer or the disturbing Mrs. Hilyard, who reminds me a bit of Rose Dartle in David Copperfield. From humor, the novel soon takes a more serious turn.
The introduction to this novel says that once Mrs. Oliphant was one of the most well-regarded of the Victorian novelists, but she is now nearly forgotten. I have found the two of her novels I’ve read to be very entertaining. I think she reminds me, with a delicate touch, more of Jane Austen than any other writer I’ve encountered, and some of the events of Salem Chapel are remindful of Pride and Prejudice. I can only hope that more people will decide to read the works of Margaret Oliphant.