This, like Rachel Ray, was picked up for my essay. I’d never read anything by Mrs O before, though her name was very familiar. She, after all, wrote something like 100 books during her life, and was one of the raft of Victorian women who were able to make their living by writing alone. She admits that it didn’t make her rich, though, and her prolificacy had much to do with her need to make money. For this reason, some critics have regarded her as “hackish”, though I’m not sure this is altogether fair.
The story – one of her famous Chronicles of Carlingford tales – follows Arthur Vincent, a young Nonconformist minister, fresh-faced and straight out of college, as he takes his first post as minister of Salem Chapel. Salem Chapel is within the “voluntary system” – where the congregation selects and pays their own minister – a system which Mrs Oliphant didn’t like, and which Mr Vincent himself comes to hate through the course of the novel. Because they pay Vincent’s wages, the congregation take an active interest in the kinds of sermons he delivers, how many pews are hired out (and thus how much money he brings in), and – gallingly for Vincent – they feel they have the right to dictate his social life to him, and they make their displeasure strongly known when he becomes friends with the “high” Lady Western. The congregation of Salem are tradespeople, dealers in bacon and cheese, and you quickly realise that Salem Chapel has more to say about the social aspects of a Dissenting congregation than about the religion itself.
Running alongside this social drama is the sensational storyline featuring the mysterious Mrs Hillyard – somehow linked to the beautiful Lady Western – and her (ex)husband Colonel Mildmay. Mildmay is an out-and-out baddie, who kidnaps their daughter from the school her mother has placed her in for safety’s sake, along with (coincidentally) Vincent’s sister Susan, who he has hoodwinked into thinking that he is someone else, and to whom he has become engaged. Cue lots of Vincent running around London and Dover trying to find his sister before her innocence is compromised. Back in Carlingford, all the Salem congregation can talk about is how their minister has “business of his own”, and that he really shouldn’t have any business other than the chapel and its congregation.
The melodrama makes the middle section of the novel a real page-turner as the narrative zips along, but the plot is ludicrous and sadly, I think, detracts from an interesting exploration of the zeal of the congregation and its relationship with its minister. While sensation literature – very popular at this time – is by its nature big and exciting, Mrs Oliphant’s tale of the nefarious Mildmay and the innocent Susan (whose reputation remains untarnished) feels somewhat slapdash and is the kind of thing which no doubt earned the author her “hackish” reputation.