In The Rector, which Blackwood’s Magazine published in 1863, Margaret Oliphant made her second foray into the fictional town of Carlingford to which she would return over the course of the next 13 years. Preceded by the novella The Executor, The Rector brings the author’s attention for the first time to the clergymen of Carlingford. Oliphant would go on to devote three more Carlingford novels to them: Salem Chapel (1863), The Perpetual Curate (1864), and Phoebe, Junior (1876).

The Rector follows the brief incumbency of the Reverend Morley Proctor. A replacement for the recently deceased Mr Bury (whose Evangelical leanings and missionary work in the poorer quarters of Carlingford have offended the socially privileged inhabitants of Grange Lane), Proctor interests his parishioners deeply. Unlike his predecessor, he appears unconcerned with evangelizing the working class neighborhood of Wharfside; unlike his foil in the story, Frank Wentworth, he doesn’t seem invested in the decorations and trappings of High Anglicanism either. In fact, Proctor’s interest in clerical matters appears entirely academic; a former fellow of Oxford’s All-Souls, he has, in his middle forties, ventured out of his comfortable academic setting for the first time in order to provide a home for his widowed mother. Carlingford tests Proctor’s fitness as a clergyman in three important areas: social, personal, and spiritual. The first of several of Oliphant’s hapless clerics, Proctor’s response in these areas highlights one of Oliphant’s ongoing themes: that of the clergyman’s necessary involvement in daily living.

From the first, Oliphant emphasizes Proctor’s interiority:

The obscurity in which the new Rector had buried his views was the most extraordinary thing about him. He had taken high honours at college, and was “highly spoken of;” but whether he was High or Low or Broad, muscular or sentimental, sermonising or decorative, nobody in the world seemed to be able to tell. [2]

Determined to discover these views, and thus to discover how he compares to his predecessor and the other clergymen in town, Proctor’s new parishioners subject him to a seemingly endless round of social dinners and visits. Though Carlingford is more curious than hostile, Proctor finds such intercourse with his “dread parishioners” (11) to be almost physically painful — the dinners, to his mind, are “frightful reproductions of each other, with the same dishes, the same dresses, the same stories” (11).

His discomfort serves as an initial sign of Proctor’s professional inefficacy; if he is to exercise any influence, Proctor will need to be able to relate with his parishioners at all levels of society, through dinner conversation as well as declarations from the pulpit. In On the Constitution of Church and State, Coleridge had described the ideal clergyman as “with his parishioners and among them . . . neither in his cloistered cell, nor in the wilderness”(“Paragraph the Fourth”). Horton Davies confirms this ideal in A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels: “In Protestantism,” he notes, “one was either a good Christian in the world or a bad Christian in the world, but never a Christian withdrawn from the world” (139). Yet Proctor retains his fundamentally cloistered sensibility:

He made no innovations whatever; but he did not pursue Mr Bury’s Evangelical ways, and never preached a sermon or a word more than was absolutely necessary. When zealous Churchmen discussed the progress of Dissent, the Rector scarcely looked interested; and nobody could move him to express an opinion concerning all that lovely upholstery with which Mr Wentworth had decorated St Roque’s. People asked in vain, what was he? He was neither High nor Low, enlightened nor narrow-minded; he was a Fellow of All-Souls. [Salem Chapel, 12]

Here, Oliphant repeats nearly exactly her earlier list of possible incarnations the Rector could take, but in this context it becomes a litany of negation. To be a “Fellow of All-Souls,” she implies, is to be a cipher, not fully a self. More importantly, Proctor’s essential isolation suggests that by revealing nothing of himself, he also reveals little of the divine.

In a comic turn, Proctor’s personal fitness is measured by his willingness to consider marriage. For Oliphant, marriage exists as a clerical imperative, accentuating the differences between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. Proctor’s discomfort in Carlingford — evident in nearly every interaction — becomes acute when his mother suggests that he is “wanted to marry” one of the churchwarden’s daughters:

The Rector jumped to his feet thunderstruck. Wanted to marry! — the idea was too overwhelming and dreadful — his mind could not receive it. [An] air of alarm . . . immediately diffused itself all over him — [and an] unfeigned horror at the suggestion . . . .For anything he could tell, somebody might be calculating upon him as her lover, and settling his future life for him. The Rector was not vain — he did not think himself an Adonis; he did not understand anything about the matter, which indeed was beneath the consideration of a Fellow of All Souls. But have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? And is it not certain that, whether it may be to their advantage or disadvantage, every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody? [14-15]

Oliphant mocks Proctor — affectionately, for the most part — every time she calls him “a Fellow of All-Souls”; precisely because he is no longer at All-Souls, the things that were ‘beneath his consideration’ there — from evangelism to the church upholstery that denotes High Anglicanism to women and marriage — constitute the very life that requires his engagement as the Rector of Carlingford.

His mother’s assertion that “A man ought to marry”(12) — has startled Proctor, revealing (he thinks) a sinister subtext in every dinner party. Yet part of his dismay comes from the knowledge that the wife being envisioned for him is the bland spinster and not her younger, prettier sister. Oliphant goes on having fun at Morley Proctor’s expense nearly every time she depicts his thoughts about being “wanted to marry” Lucy Wodehouse:

At the bottom of all this fright and perplexity must it be owned that the Rector had a guilty consciousness within himself, that if Lucy drove the matter to extremities, he was not so sure of his own powers of resistance as he ought to be? She might marry him before he knew what he was about; and in such a case the Rector could not have taken his oath at his own private confessional that he would have been so deeply miserable as the circumstances might infer. [16]

The wry juxtaposition of Proctor’s imagined union with the attractive Lucy and his “own private confessional” points again to Oliphant’s contention that the scholarly, almost monkish, life only appeals to Proctor because he hasn’t experienced anything else.

Proctor’s ineptness with women provides some of the novel’s fun; nevertheless, Oliphant’s point is a very real one: a clergyman who refuses to marry insists on an unhealthy — and un-English — isolation. In one of the novel’s most telling scenes, Proctor leaves the house, and walking around the garden, “paused with his hand on the gate, doubtful whether to retreat into his study or boldly to face that world which was plotting against him” (15). His hesitation at even this simplest of acts dramatizes the novel’s central dilemma: will Proctor retreat altogether, or will he abandon his comforts to engage with the world fully?

Proctor’s final test reframes this question in spiritual terms. Called to the side of a dying parishioner, Proctor fails to give her comfort, helplessly asserting that she’ll surely be better soon. Proctor knows that he ought to have the right words for such an occasion, but “he knew nothing to say — no medicine for a mind diseased was in his repositories” (23). It’s a failure that proves his unfitness for his post: not only were clerics expected to preside over social and religious ceremonies, they also served as symbolic gatekeepers, ushering newborns into world and community through baptism, and ushering the dying into eternity. Instead, Proctor has to watch Frank Wentworth, the perpetual curate of St Roque’s, comfort the dying woman, while he himself stands humbly aside. Wentworth, the protagonist of Oliphant’s later Carlingford novel, The Perpetual Curate, acts in this narrative as a constant foil to Proctor and a vision of what the ideal clergyman can do. He converses easily, knows his “views” and explains them passionately, offers effective spiritual leadership, and hopes to marry Lucy Wodehouse. Though they cannot yet afford marriage, the two are nevertheless a couple in the eyes of the entire community, not only because they are young and handsome, but because they understand the world Proctor does not: the world “of human creatures who were dying, being born, perishing, suffering, [and] falling into misfortune and anguish” (26). His failure to do so serves as the final catalyst for Proctor’s crisis of vocation.

Young Wentworth knew what to say to that woman in her distress; and so might the Rector, had her distress concerned a disputed translation, or a disused idiom. The good man was startled in his composure and his calm. To-day he had visibly failed in a duty which even in All-Souls was certainly known to be one of the duties of a Christian priest. Was he a Christian priest, or what was he? He was troubled to the very depths of his soul. To hold an office the duties of which he could not perform was clearly impossible. The only question, and that a hard one, was, whether he could learn to discharge those duties, or whether he must cease to be Rector of Carlingford. [27]

Oliphant again repeats language she has used earlier in the narrative; the question — ‘what was he?’ — which the parishioners had asked amongst themselves becomes newly poignant as Proctor asks it of himself. Similarly, the earlier question of whether to retreat to his study or open the gate and enter the world becomes here the much more crucial question of whether Proctor is to remain a clergyman “in the world” at all.

Though Proctor returns to Oxford once more at the end of the story (notably making room for Reverend Morgan, who “wanted to marry”[27]), Oliphant hints that he will no longer find it a comfortable retreat, and she envisions a more hopeful future in which “an elderly embarrassed Rector, with a mild wife in dove-coloured dresses, toils painfully after his duty, more and more giving his heart to it . . . setting forth untimely, yet not too late, into the laborious world” (35).

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. On the Constitution of Church and State. 1830. Kindle Edition: Brouwer Press, 2011.

Davies, Horton. A Mirror of the Ministry in Modern Novels. NY: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Oliphant, Margaret. Chronicles of Carlingford: The Rector and The Doctor’s Family. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.

Last modified 29 May 2011