Carlingford is the setting for Margaret Oliphant's most famous series of novels, The Chronicles of Carlingford, published between 1863 and 1876. Carlingford is, according to Oliphant, "essentially a quiet place" with "no trade, no manufactures, no anything in particular" (The Perpetual Curate, 2). Instead, the "centre of life . . . round which everything circles is, in Carlingford, found in the clergy" (1). Accordingly, Oliphant often refers to the geography of the town in ecclesiastical terms. The socially advantaged inhabitants of Grange Lane nearly always belong to the Church of England; its parish living is occupied first by the evangelically-minded Mr Bury, secondly by Morley Proctor (The Rector), thirdly by Mr Morgan (The Perpetual Curate), and finally by Frank Wentworth (The Perpetual Curate). Carlingford's poor live in Wharfside, where the parish church has established a missionary presence with services in the schoolhouse; its High Church adherents congregate a half-mile out of town at the chapel of ease of St Roque's. Established to bear some of the weight of an overlarge parish, St. Roque's is occupied by Frank Wentworth in The Perpetual Curate, and later by Reverend May in Phoebe, Junior.

Although — from the view in Grange Lane — "there are no Dissenters in Carlingford" (The Rector, 1), Oliphant nevertheless depicts a thriving Dissenting community in and around Grove Street, associated with the Nonconformist Salem Chapel at its west end. Here, too, interest centers on the figure of the minister, who "was everything in his little world" (The Perpetual Curate, 2). The Salem Chapel pulpit is filled by "Old Mr Tufton" until his retirement, then by Arthur Vincent (Salem Chapel), Henry Beecham (Phoebe, Junior; called "Beecher" in Salem Chapel), Mr Thorpe, and temporarily by Horace Northcote (Phoebe, Junior).

Descriptively, each area reflects the social and economic status of those who live there. Grange Lane's older homes include architectural details like "staircase windows and blank walls" (The Rector, 20) and walled gardens which suggest both grandeur and social barrier. Even the name "Grange Lane," with its rural associations, implies establishment and luxury. In contrast, Grove Street's wealth is newer, its homes, cheaper. Though Oliphant refers to the town as "cheerful" (Salem Chapel, 2), its cottages are "content to be haughtily overlooked" (The Rector, 20) by Grange Lane's more impressive edifices. Grove Street's small front gardens contrast sharply with the more private walled gardens of Grange Lane, providing minimal distance from the activity of the street. Society in Grove Street seems brash, as reflected in Salem Chapel's "grim pews" which "blush with bright colours" (Salem Chapel, 2). Behind the "shops and traffic" of the George Street business district lies what Oliphant calls the "inevitable land of shadow" that characterizes the district of Wharfside (10). Beyond this phrase, with its layered suggestions of poverty, pollution, sorrow, and ignorance, Oliphant gives little physical description of Wharfside. Instead, she emphasizes the narrowness of Prickett's Lane, which leads from George Street to the canal, full of "unruly children and gossiping mothers at . . . poor doors" (15). Already distanced physically and economically from Carlingford proper, Wharfside's lack of its own church suggests that its people have been relegated to the outer limits of Christianity as well as community.

Given this setting, clerical residences signal the symbolic place of the clergyman within the community. George Street, where Nonconformist minister Arthur Vincent has rooms, is at "the other end" (6) of town from Grange Lane, and close to the railroad, a fact that associates its inhabitants with business and change rather than ease and tradition. Frank Wentworth, by contrast, has rooms in Grange Lane, but in the last house, both affirming and undercutting his status as a gentleman. The parsonage at St Roque's, later inhabited by the May family, is similarly situated at the far end of Grange Lane, nearly to the point of being out of town. The parish living at Carlingford is more centrally located, and boasts "as pretty a bit of lawn as you could see," (The Perpetual Curate, 5) but its proximity to George Street and the railroad suggest that it's not yet in the best territory.

In each case, Oliphant situates her cleric at Carlingford's physical borderlines and margins, thus indicating his standing in Carlingford society. To some degree, such placement reinforces the clergyman's necessary social mobility. "The English clergyman" declared the conservative periodical Church and State, "is received everywhere in society and no member of the body politic mixes so freely in every stratum of society as he does" (123). Yet the clergyman's physical location on the edges of genteel society also argues the fragility of each man's social status, as each of Oliphant's clerical novels puts its central figure in danger of losing the reputation, caste, or professional position that ensures his place in Carlingford.

References

Church and State Defence Association. Supplement to Church and State. II. xviii. November 2, 1878. Google Books edition.

Oliphant, Margaret. The Perpetual Curate. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Oliphant, Margaret. The Rector and The Doctor's Family. NY: Viking Penguin,1986.

Oliphant, Margaret. Salem Chapel. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Victorian Web Overview Margaret Oliphant

Last modified 29 May 2011