I Am Trying to Reconnect…with Mrs. Oliphant!

Mrs. Oliphant, an underrated Victorian writer

Although we are not housebound, we have new ice and snow on top of the old snow. It is very slippery, my husband says. He searched the closets for the Yaktrax, special cleats you attach to the soles of your shoes. (The mailmen and mailwomen wear them.) One does not slip on Yaktrax, but the farthest I’ve ever managed to walk in them is three blocks.

“No, don’t bother,” I said listlessly.

I have been lethargic lately. Well, it is February. Instead of contentment, or at least the ability to fake it, I am utterly drained by winter. And my reading has not made me happy: I have perused several unsatisfying third-rate 19th-century novels.

The difficulty began when I decided to read books from the old TBR list. Very Goodreads-ish plan, yes? But actually, I am not the list-ticking type at all, so this was a bad idea for my personality type.

“I don’t want to read this crap!” I gently threw a paperback copy of an inoffensive but ridiculous novel across the room. I didn’t want to damage it, just to make a gesture before dropping it in the donate box–actually, boxES at this point.

There was nothing for it but to turn to some of my favorite classics, books rich in language, style, and plot.

And so I turned to Mrs. Oliphant’s delightful Chronicles of Carlingford, a six-book series which, I think, was inspired by Trollope’s Barsetshire series. All the books are set in the fictitious town of Carlingford, and many of the characters are connected with the church. Characters also recur from one novel to the next. The first in the series includes a short story, “The Rector,” and a short novel, The Doctor’s Family. Although I enjoyed “The Rector,” The Doctor’s Family is really brilliant–and I shall write a little about it here.

Young Dr. Rider lived in the new quarter of Carlingford: had he aimed at a reputation in society, he could not have done a more foolish thing; but such was not his leading motive.

Dr. Rider practices medicine in the ugly brickworkers’ part of town so as not to have to tread on the toes of the wealthy, established Dr. Marjoribanks in Carlingford proper. But Dr. Rider is frazzled and bitter, because he is unmarried, uncomfortable, and overworked. He returns every day to an unhomely home. And when his ne’er-do-well brother, Fred, shows up out of the blue and moves in, Dr. Rider is exasperated and depressed.

The only good thing about Fred: he likes to read. He lolls about the house all day drinking alcohol and reading novels. Fred ruined Dr. Rider’s living at his last practice, so Dr. Rider paid Fred’s passage to Australia and started again in Carlingford. He is horrified by Fred’s return, and worries that he will be ruined a second time.

And then the plot takes a fantastical, fascinating turn. Two young Australian women show up at Dr. Rider’s office, and one of them is Fred’s wife, Susan. Dr. Rider is flabbergasted: he had no idea Fred was married. And Susan and her younger sister, Nettie, have the impression that Fred needs to be rescued from Dr. Rider. Fred had told them falsely that Dr. Rider had ruined him, instead of the other way around. But fortunately Nettie is savvy and sees the way things are. Totally in charge of the family, she marches Fred to the hotel–where his three children also await him!

Pretty, tiny, fairy-like Nettie rents a house and supports the family on her small income. She impresses Dr. Rider with her competence and charm, and naturally his thoughts turn to marriage. The course of Dr. Rider’s courtship of the oblivious Nettie does not run smooth, though, and we have to laugh a little. Nettie is too busy managing her whiny sister and Fred. and raising the children to think about marriage. In fact, she says she will never marry.

But the marriage plot rules in The Doctor’s Family. Mrs. Oliphant has a gift for matching compatible types of people. Dr. Rider and Nettie are two of a kind–smart, hard-working, and competent–while Fred and his wife are lazy and inept, completely without conscience about sponging on their relatives. Quite a few other characters appear in the novel, and other things happen, but we are satisfied well before the end that one marriage or even more will occur.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ Mrs. Oliphant (1828-1897). She is an underrated Victorian writer who somehow has not been admitted to the canon. (Sounds like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, doesn’t it?) She wrote more than 100 books to support her family, and though not all are equally good, her best are certainly as good as Mrs. Gaskell’s. As far as I know, The Carlingford Chronicles are not in print. You can find e-books. I have used copies of the old Viragos. But it’s a disgrace that Penguin and Oxford haven’t published them.