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The Perpetual Curate

Margaret Oliphant

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Frank Wentworth is the Perpetual Curate; the daughters of the Wodehouse family are his special friends; and his church clerk, Mr. Elsworthy, runs the local shop. And each family, it appears, has its “skeleton in the cupboard.” Mr. Wentworth is familiar to readers of the Chronicles of Carlingford: he is among the first characters introduced in the series, and has been a constant presence as a prominent member of society in the small town.

But there is a new Rector in Carlingford, and this circumstance brings with it the first cloud in the otherwise clear skies of Mr. Wentworth’s station in life. To be sure, a “perpetual curate”—an Anglican clergyman serving a church without any accompanying parish—does not enjoy a lofty position. But his mission to the working-class poor near his church brings him satisfaction, fulfillment, and a more intimate relationship with the younger Miss Wodehouse, who joins in the work. All this is threatened by the new Rector, who is adamant that only a mission authorized by him should be carried out in his parish.

That is only the beginning of the Perpetual Curate’s troubles, however. Those “skeletons” in the three families prove to be very much active, and involve Frank in affairs that not only disturb his working life, but threaten to bring it to an end altogether.

Once again Margaret Oliphant brings her particular skills to bear on some of the female characters in the novel. The elder Miss Wodehouse, each of Frank’s maiden aunts, and especially Mrs. Morgan, the newly married and middle-aged wife of the new Rector, are deftly portrayed. Oliphant also weaves in some salient features of Victorian church life, from low church Anglican evangelicalism, to high church Anglo-Catholicism, to the lure of conversion to Rome itself—each without the degree prejudice and caricature that sometimes emerges even in the work of Anthony Trollope, whose work bears comparison with Oliphant’s.

The high drama of this carefully plotted novel attests to Oliphant’s affection for her creation of Frank Wentworth: “I mean to bestow the very greatest care upon him,” she wrote to her publisher. As a result, The Perpetual Curate remains one of Oliphant’s most popular works.

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