This book actually contains only two of the Carlingford Chronicles: The Rector and The Doctor’s Family. I’d previously read The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow; I liked this book better. Mrs Oliphant was one of those Victorian women who wrote because they had to, in order to support a family. In her case, she looked after her brother and his children as well. Poor thing, she published nearly 100 novels, as well as writing for magazines and hardly knew a moment’s rest her whole life.
When you read that Carlingford is a small, undistinguished town with a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ end, a place where everyone knows everybody else’s business, you might think of Cranford. Starting The Rector and reading about church preferment and doctrinal differences you might expect something Trollopian. You’d be wrong on both counts because these novellas are character studies of two men; very different but each with serious problems.
The eponymous Rector, Mr Proctor, is no longer young but Carlingford is his first preferment as he’s spent the previous fifteen years as a fellow of All Souls. Now he wants a home for his aged but sprightly mother, so has moved very much out of his comfort zone. The previous rector was ‘low’; Mr Wentworth, the perpetual curate at St Rocques, is ‘high’. Those who go to chapel are not part of Carlingford society. We learn all this from the Wodehouse family, who live in one of the favoured areas of the town, where fine houses and gardens are hidden behind high walls. Mr Proctor turns out to be neither high nor low nor anything much; he is awkward in company and in the execution of his duties. When the much younger Wentworth proves more capable than he at comforting a dying man, Proctor is humiliated. He returns to Oxford but we are left with the impression that his Carlingford experience has made him dissatisfied for life and that he will feel the need to overcome this failure somewhere else. This is by far the shorter of the two stories in this book but gives a wonderful impression of small town life and the failure of a clever man to fit into it.
In The Doctor’s Family we meet Dr Rider; young, hard working, with a practice amongst the lower sort of people of the town. The Wodehouses and the other well-to-do families send for Dr Marjoribanks. Nevertheless, Rider is a well known figure, dashing about in his ‘drag’, and a subject for gossip. This is because he has ‘a skeleton’ in the form of his wastrel elder brother, once the hope of the family, now a useless wreck of a man who spends his days lying on a sofa smoking a foul pipe and reading novels. (For a woman who made her living out of novels, Mrs Oliphant manages to make reading them sound like the depths of depravity.) Out of the blue Rider’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of Fred’s wife and three children from Australia. Not only had he not known Fred was married, the poor doctor is astonished and enchanted by the family saviour, Nettie, Fred’s sister-in-law. This tiny force of nature rules the household and also pays for it. As she sees it, this is what she has to do and she refuses to be praised for ‘doing her duty’. The doctor gets Fred out of his own house yet visits constantly at his new lodgings, insulted by Fred and his wife, exasperated by the children, yet unable to keep away from the fascinating Nettie. The attraction is mutual and the narrative tension of the book depends on the question, ‘will they, won’t they, can it made possible?’ This makes for a very interesting study of their two different characters, an almost gothic story set against the quiet of Carlingford. Cranford this is not!
I really enjoyed this read and am now keen to find the other three stories which make up the Chronicles.