The Curate in Charge, Margaret Oliphant
I knew nothing about Margaret Oliphant, and very little about Victorian women writers in general, when I came across a used copy of Miss Marjoribanks several years ago. When I sat down to read it, I was instantly enthralled with Miss Marjoribanks herself, with the fictional setting of Carlingford, and with Oliphant's writing. She reminds me of Anthony Trollope, in the easy accessibility of her stories, the sense of real life that she gives to her characters, and her narrative voice. I immediately set out to find the other books in the "Chronicles of Carlingford" series, and I was lucky enough to find copies of the recent Virago reprints. I also found a copy of her autobiography, which I read only last year, a heart-breaking and incredibly moving account of loss and grief. And I came across a copy of The Curate in Charge, which years later I have finally gotten around to reading.
Again like Trollope, Oliphant writes frequently about clergymen and their families. The title character of this book is the Rev. Cecil St John, who has been the curate of Brentburn, a country parish in Berkshire, for twenty years. Brentburn is a college living, and the holder of the living, the Rev. Mr Chester, made his health an excuse to retire to Italy. (My recent reading of Irene Collins' book Jane Austen and Clergy gave me a better understanding of the circumstances of the living and the curate's position.) In his twenty years in the village, Mr St John has married and lost two wives, leaving him with two families to support on his curate's salary. The first family consists of two daughters, Cicely and Mab. When they leave Brentburn to go to school, their father marries their former governess. After their stepmother's death, the girls return home to help care for the twin boys she leaves behind. Just as they are trying to adjust to their new life, word arrives that Mr Chester has died in Italy. A new rector will now be appointed, their father will lose his home and income, and at age sixty-five, must look for a new place. After twenty years in a quiet country curacy, Mr St John is completely unprepared to face this upheaval in his life, and to Cicely's despair, he will make no provision nor take any action. He welcomes the new rector, Mr Mildmay, without even a hint of the family's precarious position. Cicely must do everything herself, even searching for a new situation for her father, while trying to run the household and care for her brothers. Her younger sister Mab, a talented artist, is much more likely to pose the children, barefoot and in rags, than to care for them.
Oliphant often found herself in Cicely's position, caring for husband, children, brothers, nieces and nephews, many of whom were just as impractical and passive as Mr St John. Her writing supported her extended family for decades, with more than 100 books, as well as articles and reviews. Again like Trollope, she was sometimes criticized for writing too much, or too commercially. There seems to be general agreement that the quality of her books varies widely, which is understandable given that she wrote at speed and under pressure. The Carlingford books are considered among the best of her work, and I enjoyed them all, particularly The Perpetual Curate, my favorite of her novels. I think The Curate in Charge, while a slighter novel, should be ranked with them.