We do have meanings now and then but they seldom come to much: Margaret Oliphant’s Salem Chapel

Salem ChapelIn 1863, Margaret Oliphant gifted the world with Salem Chapel, which is book one of the immensely popular Carlingford Chronicles. The novel opens in a way that is, I think, meant to remind us of the gentle satire of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851): the story is about a small town’s small Dissenting congregation and how it deals with the excitement of bringing in a new pastor for its flock. The country is quiet and lovely, and the people, in their own estimation are:

“Cheerful folks and no display. No display, you know–nothing but a hearty meetin’, sorry to part, and happy to meet again. Them’s our ways. And the better you know us, the better you’ll like us, I’ll be bound to say. We don’t put it all on the surface, Mr. Vincent,” continued Mrs. Pigeon, shaking out her skirts and expanding herself on her chair, “but it’s all real and solid; what we say we mean–and we don’t say no more than we mean–and them’s the kind of folks to trust to wherever you go.”

Salen’s Chapel’s new minister, Arthur Vincent, is bold, idealistic, naive, and very young. Having recently finished his studies, his notions are strongly held and entirely untested in situations involving actual people. But such homely folk as these should be an ease and a pleasure to minister to. Shouldn’t they?

Perhaps they should, but they are not–at least not for Oliphant’s restless young man. For, like Gaskell, Oliphant knew very well that the flip side to such welcoming, personable community is constant gossip and an utter lack of privacy. And for a young man, full of fire, pith, vinegar, and any other combustible or sharpish matter of the spiritual variety that you can imagine, it’s also depressing and emasculating:

He went along George Street with troubled haste, pondering his sorrows–those sorrows which he could confide to nobody. Was he actually to live among these people for years–to have no other society–to circulate among their tea-parties, and grow accustomed to their finery, and perhaps “pay attention” to Phoebe Tozer; or, at least, suffer that young lady’s attentions to him? And what would become of him at the end? To drop into a shuffling old gossip, like good old Mr. Tufton, seemed the best thing he could hope for; and who could wonder at the mild stupor of paralysis–disease not tragical, only drivelling–which was the last chapter of all?

It all promises to be dull and frustrating, but emasculating most of all. Arthur Vincent spends the majority of Salem Chapel, the plot arc of which spans less than a year, in a constant struggle with the feminine and feminizing forces around him. His foes comprise primarily his mother, his sister, the women who want to marry him, the people (male and female) who want him to marry their daughters, the woman he loves but who doesn’t reciprocate, and the mysterious Mrs. Hilyard. That’s a lot of women who, against his notions and better judgment, appear to have desires, plans, and rich inner lives which he had nothing to do with developing.

Young Vincent, instead of settling down to the community-building that is really the essence of his job, finds himself continually distracted as he is drawn into a labyrinth of women’s troubles. This labyrinth includes a losing battle with his quietly and sweetly controlling mother, trying to rescue his sister who’s been wooed and then abducted by a married man, Mrs. Hilyard and her insistence on involving him in her attempts to prevent her estranged husband from disposing of their beautiful but mentally deficient daughter in some sham marriage, the red-cheeked and extravagantly bashful Phoebe Tozer, and all the town’s opinionated ladies commenting constantly on everything he does and does not do.

All this causes him unspeakable anguish, impatience, and exposure to public scandal; it affects his ability to do his job; it embroils him in endless arguments about what his job comprises, for he resists with every ounce of his stubborn soul the idea that he need placate or please anyone–ever. He wants to be the man, clearly the man, making decisions and being strong and firm and knowing everything in every situation, and he simply can’t be. It’s not allowed and, as he’s very slow to learn and indeed never learns completely, he’s just not capable. Arthur Vincent is too childish, too self-absorbed, too involved in his own view of himself to ever become capable of most of the things he thinks he should just be able to do. He’s a gifted preacher but he is, frankly, a bit of a jackass too.

He fails to learn from all his struggles, in part because he is incapable of empathizing with anyone else’s struggles, but particularly women’s. Mrs. Hilyard is the most baffling to him and the one who, were he able to hear it, could tell him the most about himself and his position. During one of their early and most enigmatic conversations, she drops this bomb on him:

But don’t you understand yet that a woman’s intention is the last thing she is likely to perform in this world? We do have meanings now and then, we poor creatures, but they seldom come to much.

Arthur hears such clear indications of the real suffering all the women around him all the time but he never integrates it. He is a failure as a pastor because, while is a very effective performer when he’s in the pulpit, he can’t behave like a human being most of the time; or, rather, he is unable to behave like an adult human being who’s noticed there are other people in the world. Irritation is his primary response to being forced into contact with others in ways that don’t suit him; and almost nothing suits him.

It’s not just a lack of empathy that marks Arthur Vincent for ultimate failure as the minister of Salem Chapel. He persistently, nay aggressively, refuses to recognize the true nature of his position there. Among Dissenters, the practice was to hire their own pastors rather than having them assigned by some larger body; they interview, hire, discuss, choose–and they chose Vincent from among several candidates. Nonetheless, he refuses to acknowledge his congregations’ right to interfere with his ministering–all of which is directly against Dissenting philosophy! Oliphant makes it clear just how replaceable he is when he has to bring in a substitute one Sunday:

[T]he bond of union between themselves and their pastor was far from being indissoluble, and they contemplated this new aspirant to their favour with feelings stimulated and piquant, as a not inconsolable husband, likely to become a widower, might contemplate the general female public, out of which candidates for the problematically vacant place might arise.

Damn, that’s bitter! The position of the Dissenting preacher is precisely that which Mrs. Hilyard described to Arthur Vincent as being the position of most women–general powerlessness and subjection to those who need never consult their feelings or desires at all. It is ironic and sad and indicative of just how enabled (to use modern terminology against the past) he is by everyone around him that he never has to perceive this truth more than very dimly. When he is made aware of it with regards to his own position, he quits his job for one in which he can, without opposition, exercise his desire for instructing, informing, directing, and controlling as he sees fit–as an editor! (Ha! Things have changed somewhat.)

I’ve read only two of Margaret Oliphant’s books, but I think it might be safe to say she was a feminist writer. I’m looking forward to finding out if she really was, because her writing is as excellent as her wit is sharp. In fact, her writing is sometimes too effective in Salem Chapel–for example, Mrs. Vincent is an annoying busy-body protected by the cloak of adorable motherhood, and I sometimes found myself sympathizing with Arthur behaving like a dirty jerk to her. Also, the anxiety that wore down Mrs. Vincent and Arthur as they searched in vain for Susan wore me down too, and I had to take a number of relaxation breaks with the silly and wonderful Don Quixote to be able to continue with Salem Chapel.

Next up in the Carlingford Chronicles: The Rector! When I can find it, that is: most of these books are out of print, and I received Salem Chapel in a Very Olde Copye (read: expensive because bought from a super-posh antiquarian bookseller) as a gift.

(Dear Penguin and/or Oxford: Please republish all of the works of Mrs. Oliphant–I can guarantee that you’ll sell at least one copy of each.)

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15 Comments Add yours

  1. Guy Savage says:

    This sounds wonderful. I’ve yet to read Oliphant but I have a number on her novels on my shelves (currently all distressingly empty and moved due to painting) but since I am a Gaskell fan, I’m sure I’d like her.

    How many are there in the Carlingford Chronicles?

    1. Colleen says:

      There are 6 Carlingford books, although some are really novellas.

      I think yes, if you like Gaskell–or Trollope–you’ll like Oliphant.

      Good luck with the painting!

  2. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks looks like all six are on the kindle at least.

    1. Colleen says:

      I wish I could use e-readers but I just find the physical object too distracting.

  3. Rohan says:

    Do you have the excellent Broadview anthology with the fetching title “Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors”? The two essays in there by Oliphant (who was astonishingly prolific in all forms!) suggest she became more ‘feminist’ as time went on. But, as is often the case with 19thC women writers, the label is a tricky one to apply, don’t you think? I have often assigned one of her late short stories, “A Story of a Wedding Tour,” which is a strikingly frank critique of marriage as a form of socially legitimated prostitution. Her Autobiography is quite remarkable. But I haven’t read Salem Chapel yet — only Hester and Miss Marjoribanks, I think, of her full-length fictions. I think I have the Broadview edition of Phoebe Junior — you tempt me to give it a try!

    1. Colleen says:

      You’re right, I was too reckless in suggesting she’s feminist. I should perhaps, instead, have said many of her concerns are feminist and/or are addressed through feminist lenses. Which may be true of many of the period’s great writers; I guess I’m noticing how much more explicit she is, except maybe than Gissing, than other 19th C writers I’ve come across so far. Clearly, I need to keep reading.

      I don’t have the CIWM collection; will keep an eye out!

      1. Brook says:

        You used to have it — or rather your husband did. Not sure it made it through the bookstore purge, however.

      2. Colleen says:

        We definitely don’t have it now; I’m guessing you’re right and that it ended up in the shop.

  4. The case of Oliphant and the feminist literary critics is fascinating. Please go here for a series of links and references on the subject (including Rohan’s helpful pointers – the post is about the story Rohan mentions). Mostly references – the university library will be a big help.

    Essentially, the story is that Oliphant was at one time so poorly and little read that many GIlbert and Gubar-era feminist critics made a serious error with her. Subsequent critics have cleaned up the mess.

    While I am pointing you to books, Penelope Fitzgerald’s introductions to the Virago editions are excellent. They can be found in her collection A House of Air.

    My Salem Chapel posts will begin to go up tonight, I hope, so I will be back here to borrow things. Wish me luck.

    Rohan – Salem Chapel shows that Oliphant had been carefully reading that hot new novelist, George Eliot.

  5. Colleen says:

    The G & Gites messed up a great deal with Renaissance women’s writing too; at least, that’s what I vaguely recall from my years as a graduate student. Forgive me if I don’t care to go back and look at that stuff again.

  6. Stefanie says:

    Oh this sounds marvelous. I must get around to reading Oliphant sometime.

    1. Colleen says:

      This will be easier if you have an ereader…although you have access to a uni library, yes? They might have some olde volumes.

    2. The Virago Classics edition, the Virago – Penelope FItzgerald intro!

  7. Josh says:

    Just found this essay after having read Salem Chapel; what a wonderful analysis! Have you read Oliphant’s brilliant novel Hester, which is in print from Oxford? It strikes me as pretty feministic.

  8. Colleen says:

    Hi Josh, thanks for your kind words!

    I had to re-read this post, as it’s been so long since I’ve written anything like it. The other Oliphant novel I refer to above is, in fact, Hester which I think is also both excellent and feminist (or proto-feminist). I’ve got more of her work now so should really get back to Carlingford…

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