Margaret Oliphant’s Chronicles of Carlingford (first published in Blackwood’s Magazine) deal with the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional English town – the domestic dramas of arrivals, departures, romances and deaths, played against a realistic backdrop, painted with the lightest of brush strokes. The Rector tells the story of a man who picks up the responsibilities of a parish preacher for the first time, after years sequestered as a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford, while in The Doctor’s Family a young man comes to understand that independence from familial burdens and duties is not necessarily a recipe for happiness. Both stories are parabolic while maintaining their realism, and both centre on flawed male protagonists, receiving an emotional education.
For general readers: Oliphant interests me because she is interested in people. Carlingford is geographically non-specific, and its layout unclear, but its society vividly imagined and skilfully conveyed. Her characters feel real – their loves and lives are tempered with practical considerations and their choices are morally complex. This means that this is certainly not escapist fiction, however chocolate box Carlingford may first appear. Nor is it fast-paced and high drama, groundbreaking in its style and subject matter. Yet Oliphant is a confident writer, who does what she does with conviction and so commands attention. These stories are best described as ‘thoughtful’ and they are best read thoughtfully.
For students: George Eliot’s Scenes from a Clerical Life (1857) and Silas Marner (1861), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851) are natural points of comparison for the depiction of close knit semi-rural communities. But Carlingford looks beyond itself – to the world of Oxford academia, or to the far-distant colonies, which both receive noteworthy treatment. The Rector in particular will also be of interest to those considering clergymen and the place of religion in Victorian fiction – Oliphant’s men of God are primarily that and it is religious, not societal or romantic, considerations which bring the rector to emotional crisis in this story. The two stories are also deeply concerned with a variety of social issues affecting women in the period – for instance, the absence of a sufficient number of marriageable men (something which affects the fabric of Carlingford life and the less prominent characters here like Miss Wodehouse or Miss Majoribanks) – and so could be recommended to social historians. Margaret Oliphant is most often come across by literature undergraduates as a stern critic of other writers and , because of this, it’s well worth reading the kind of novels she produced herself.
Have you read any of the Chronicles of Carlingford? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianst!