The Rector and The Doctor’s Family is in fact a collection of two novellas in Mrs. Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford, the first two works, I believe. Out of order, I have already reviewed two of this series—Miss Marjoribanks, which I found delightful, and Salem Chapel, which was funny and moving. Fortunately, although these novels have some characters in common, they don’t depend upon one another except for incidentals and the occasional reappearance of characters.
The Rector, a very short work that is mostly a character study, begins on a comic note but then becomes more serious. Before Mr. Proctor, the new rector, arrives, everyone wonders whether he will be high church or low church. Upon his arrival, all Carlingford finds that they can’t tell what he is. Instead, they wonder if he will marry Miss Wodehouse.
Mr. Proctor knows nothing of women and is upset by the notion that he might marry, even though he first learns of this idea from his elderly mother. Soon, though, there is something more to concern him. Called in to comfort a dying parishioner, Mr. Proctor finds himself useless. His 15 years at All Souls College have not prepared him for certain of his duties. All his essays on religious doctrine are no help. Mr. Proctor is appalled, and doesn’t know what to do, and he is humbled when he sees that the young Perpetual Curate does.
The main character of The Doctor’s Family is young Dr. Edward Rider, who is trying to build a practice in Carlingford. He is a little bitter because his poor financial position obliged him the year before to give up the idea of marrying Bessie Christian, but instead he gained a more unwelcome burden. His shiftless older brother Fred returned from Australia five months earlier and has been lounging around the doctor’s home drinking and smoking ever since. Edward Rider has been all the more resentful because Fred’s behavior apparently cost him his previous practice.
To this unhappy household some unexpected visitors arrive. Edward is shocked to learn that Fred left behind him in Australia a wife, Susan, and three children. They have journeyed to find Fred, accompanied by Susan’s astonishing sister Netty. Edward is immediately attracted by Netty, who is small and dynamic. Fred’s wife Susan is lethargic and stupid and quickly shows a disposition to blame her family’s situation on Edward. Netty removes the household to its own lodgings and runs it single-handedly, taking on all the responsibilities of the family for the two lazy and irresponsible parents.
Now Edward has rid himself of his brother, but he haunts their household to see Netty and falls in love with her. But Netty won’t relinquish her duties. Who will do them if she doesn’t? she reasons. And she knows that Edward won’t be able to tolerate the situation with his brother’s family.
This little novel shows such a knowledge of human foibles. I was completely captivated by the story of Edward and Netty, even while realizing that Netty would not be thanked for her efforts. I was also not at all sure how the story would end, because Oliphant often surprises us.