Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1986, 461 p plus ix p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel is the only dissenting place of worship in Carlingford. New Minister Arthur Vincent has come from Lonsdale to take over from old Mr Tufton. The congregation has been largely approving. One day, though, Vincent sees Lady Western – a dowager who is younger than her step-daughter-in-law – on a visit to Mrs Hilyard, and his head is turned, despite her being an adherent of the Church of England. His parishioners would much prefer he has nothing to do with such people, though the Chapel’s senior deacon’s daughter, Phoebe Tozer, is also thought to be a bit above herself in setting her cap at him.

Mrs Hilyard is living in reduced circumstances and on a pastoral visit to her Vincent finds her background convoluted, not to mention melodramatic. She prevails on him to put her daughter into the care of Vincent’s mother and sister in Lonsdale, without quite explaining the need. In the meantime Vincent’s sister, Susan, is being wooed by a Mr Fordham. The reader senses immediately there is something awry about the relationship. This gentleman is indeed the villain of the piece, and has used Fordham’s name to disguise himself. His connection to Mrs Hilyard and abduction of her daughter from Lonsdale when Vincent’s mother is visiting her son in Carlingford provide the motor for a rather lurid sub-plot.

Oliphant was obviously a keen observer of the politics of a parish and congregation. Vincent’s lack of enthusiasm for visiting and cups of tea had already been looked on askance but his distraction by the plight of his sister (which has to be kept as secret as possible) and the necessity of seeking her whereabouts lead to dissatisfaction in his congregation at his regular absences and eventually a call for his resignation. A resounding speech by Mr Tozer at the meeting to decide on this rouses all but a few in his defence.

It’s a perfectly respectable example of the nineteenth century novelist’s art but, overall, has that era’s tendency to wordiness, exacerbated here by descriptions like “the Nonconformist,” “the young Dowager” and “the worthy deacon” instead of the character’s name, not to mention a tendency to end a clause – or even a sentence – with a preposition. It might make a decent televisual alternative to the usual Austen remakes, however.

Pedant’s corner:- the Miss Hemmings (the Misses Hemming,) the Miss Wodehouses (the Misses Wodehouse,) “and stanch to her chapel” (staunch,) syren (siren,) stupified (stupefied,) “if there are Squire Thornhills” (strictly, Squires Thornhill,) sen- sations (in the middle of a line? sensations,) “were worthy the occasion” (usually ‘were worthy of the occasion,) “ a mistake unworthy a philosophic observer” (usually ‘unworthy of a’,) “in his behalf” (usually ‘on his behalf’,) villany (usually villainy,) “when the gray morning began to drawn” (dawn.) “‘Where you not afraid, Susan?’” (Were you not,) “‘These sort of people’” (ought to be ‘sorts of people’ but it was in dialogue,) rung the bell (rang,) a missing quotation mark at the resumption of a piece of direct speech. “‘The doctor is is very good.’” (only one ‘is’ required.) “Vincent had rising hurriedly” (had risen hurriedly,) hooping-cough (whooping cough.)

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