On the back of my Virago Classics copy of Margaret Oliphant's novel The Perpetual Curate it hails the author as being "one of the greatest and most neglected of Victorian writers". That's a big claim to make, but after reading two of Mrs. Oliphant's novels, I am starting to believe it might be true. Earlier, some readers may remember, I read Miss Marjoribanks, Mrs. Oliphant's retelling of Jane Austen's Emma. This past Saturday, I finished reading another of her Chronicles of Carlingford novels: The Perpetual Curate. This novel's subject matter was much closer to home, as it dealt with an earnest and religious young Anglican priest trying to do the work of God in a small town with people that do not always understand him. Things seem to fall apart when Frank's reputation is put in danger by a scandalous rumor circulating about his relationship to a young lady. If you want to know the rumor and the truth of the matter, go buy this book.
What makes this book a masterpiece in my opinion is how Oliphant creates, within a single family, a microcosm of the religious situation of England during the Victorian Era. The bulk of the Wentworth family is staunch Anglican, with two of the sons begin ordained clergymen. The family, itself, has control over two "livings", that is, has control of what priest is to be pastor at a particular parish--a typical situation in England at the time. The two young clergymen, Gerald and Frank, are High Church Anglican. In fact, Gerald (Frank's older brother) is so High Church he has a crisis of faith, and contemplates becoming a Catholic. Three of Frank's aunts, however, are Evangelical or Low Church Anglican. For them, Frank and Gerald's High Church style of liturgy and theology isn't even Christian. The tension within the Wentworth family increases steadily during the novel as Gerald's crisis of faith continues and the scandal surrounding Frank grows worse.
Frank Wentworth exemplifies the Anglican preoccupation with doing one's duty for the Church, for the poor, and for one's family. For him, high liturgy, with flowers at Easter and vestments, are just as important as preaching.
Gerald Wentworth exemplifies the crisis that many High Church Anglicans, like John Henry Newman, faced when they came to the question "So why am I not Catholic?" and they had no good answer. Gerald's willingness to leave his wife and children, and his good position as pastor of the Wentworth family church, struck his entire family as strange--but to a Catholic like myself, it captures the Catholic mentality that the duty we owe to God is above all others, and sometimes this duty requires the highest kinds of sacrifices. Oliphant has Gerald exclaim:
"My dear Frank, I want a Church which is not a human institution. In England it seems to be the rule of faith that every man may believe as he pleases. There is no authority either to decide or to punish. If you can foresee what that may lead us to, I cannot. I take refuge in the truth Church, where alone there is certainty--where...there is authority clear and decisive. In England you believe what you will, and the result will be one that I at least fear to contemplate; in Rome we believe what--we must" (434-435).
Gerald feels he has a duty to seek and be loyal to the Truth.
Leonora Wentworth, one of Frank's aunts, exemplifies the Evangelical/early Methodist movement on the rise in the Anglican Church at that time. Her caustic attitude toward High Church Anglicanism and Catholicism, and her condescending judgments based on prejudice rather than truth, capture a primary short coming of the Evangelical bias against older traditions of Christianity, while her emphasis on good preaching and scripture highlight two strengths of Evangelical charism. Oliphant allows Leonora to have her say throughout most of the novel, and I (a Catholic reader) had to swallow her bile, but rest assured, Oliphant allows Leonora to be humbled by none other than the eldest of the Wentworth boys,--Jack. Who, according to his father, is blessed with worldly wisdom. This Prodigal Son wanna be not only humbles his aunt, but offers a sharp critique to the entire family.
The fact that Oliphant sympathetically looks at Catholicism is unusual for a Victorian writer. Many of the writers of the day, like Charlotte Bronte, had no problem letting their anti-Catholicism show through their work, thereby spreading the idea that to be English meant to NOT be Catholic. Indeed, in their view, to be Catholic was NOT to be Christian. Oliphant does not take that view, at least not in this novel. She is eager to show how within a single family Christianity can look radically different, and how sincere each of the modes it takes can be, though unappreciated by those holding the other views. In this way, she offers a subtle critique to people of faith.
What makes The Perpetual Curate a book for our time, however, is the novel's presentation of what makes for a good clergyman, and how fragile even a saintly clergyman's reputation can be in the face of scandal. Indeed, the novel examines the nature of public scandal,--how it begins, and how people let it take on a life of its own, endangering the work of justice, and obscuring the truth. It shows the damage that scandal can do not only to the individual under suspicion, but to Christianity itself. I think any seminarian, priest, religious brother or sister, or Christian, in general, could relate to Frank Wentworth and his struggles as we seek to continue the work of the Church in this seeming "age of scandal", which is why I recommend others read this book.
*The next novel I plan on reading is Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, based on the character Dinah from Genesis. I am reading this for my book club.
Br. Paul, OP