Monday, December 20, 2010

Mrs. Oliphant's Salem Chapel

Mrs. Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel, the third novel in the Chronicles of Carlingford, is a perfect airport book.  You don't notice anything around you while you eagerly turn the pages to learn whether the hero, Mr. Vincent, a dissenting minister, will alienate all the gossipy parishioners, or whether his mother and Mr. Tozer will be able to smooth over the disputes.  Salem Chapel was so popular when it was published in 1863 that fans speculated George Eliot was the author.  (Mrs. Oliphant had mixed feelings about this.) John Blackwood, a Scottish publisher, said Salem Chapel just missed greatness.

Parts of the novel are literary, parts are junk; nevertheless, I love it.  Perhaps 200 pages of the novel are a masterpiece.  It is dramatic, vigorous, and suspenseful.  Mrs. Oliphant, who wrote to support a large extended family, badly needed money.  An admirer of Wilkie Collins, she was determined to use sensational elements to make it a bestseller.  And she succeeded.

The hero, Arthur Vincent, is very young and naive.  Straight out of the seminary, he hopes to preside over an intellectual circle.  That his parishioners are materialistic, smug tradesmen disturbs him.  A poor widow's son, Vincent is a snob. His mother, a refined minister's widow, knows diplomacy is imperative.  Vincent, on the other hand, is idealistic and passionate and doesn't find it worthwhile to compromise with less-enlightened souls.   He is an excellent preacher and moves the townspeople, but has no interest in socializing with his parishioners. He is much more fascinated by the beautiful Lady Western, who is not a church member.  Oliphant loves struggling ministers:  The Rector and The Perpetual Curate are two of the six volumes in the Carlingford series.

In the opening pages of Salem Chapel, Oliphant introduces the young Mr. Vincent with a mix of humor, irony, and admiration. 

"Mr. Vincent arrived at Carlingford in the beginning of winter, when society in that town was reassembling, or at least reappearing, after the temporary summer seclusion.  The young man knew very little of the community which he had assumed the spiritual charge of. He was almost as particular as the Rev. Mr. Wentworth of St. Roque's about the cut of his coat and the precision of his costume, and decidedly preferred the word clergyman to the word minister, which latter was universally used by his flock; but nothwithstanding these trifling predilections, Mr. Vincent, who had been brought up upon the 'Nonconformist' and the 'Eclectic Review,' was strongly impressed with the idea that the Church Establishment, though outwardly prosperous, was in reality a profoundly rotten institution..."

It is impossible not to like Mr. Vincent--who is no different from many of us when young--though he is often irritating.  Mr. Tozer, a churchwarden, constantly gives him good advice, but Vincent doesn't understand the importance of remaining on good terms with the members of the church.  Mr. Tozer has his work cut out for him mediating between Mr. Vincent and everyone else.

Then the plot becomes overly elaborate: a mysterious older woman, Mrs. Hilyer, a poor needlewoman, attends Vincent's lectures and services.  Vincent, directed to visit her by an officious member of the parish, enjoys her conversation, though she frequently mocks him.  Here is the sensational twist:  It turns out that Mrs. Hilyer has a daughter, Alice, whom she has hidden in another town from her estranged abusive husband for years.  When her husband shows up in the area, she asks if Vincent's mother and his sister, Susan, will take care of Alice and her caretaker until he leaves the area.  But Mrs. Vincent shows up, distraught because an anonymous letter says Susan's fiance is already married.  And the next thing we know his sister, Susan, and Mrs. Hilyer's daughter have disappeared with their maids.  And it seems that Mrs. Hilyer's cruel husband has abducted them.  

Although the ensuing events don't seem very likely, what does seem likely is that the members of the church are furious when Vincent takes time off from work to search for his sister.  They consider him very highhanded to find a substitute for Sunday and to focus on personal matters.  Only Mr. Tozer understands.

Even during the sensational parts, I am a fan of this book.  If you like Stiegg Larson...  no, I'm joking.  I haven't read Stieg Larsson.  But Salem Chapel is a well-written page-turner.  It is very hard to put this down to attend to one's work or holiday preparations.

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