Church of England clergymen are, almost without exception, educated at Oxford, and she specifies All-Souls College for many of her Carlingford clerics. Whether she names the college or not, however, Oliphant tends to highlight the same characteristic of university life: overly intellectual, it lacks connection to the concerns of ordinary people. The Rector’s Morley Proctor thinks longingly of the "ancient paradise of All-Souls" (27) where bewildering questions of human suffering take second place to the intellectual puzzles of Greek translation. Similarly, Roger Mildmay of The Curate in Charge, has — despite earning "all kinds of honours" (69) — devoted his time to "semi-intellectual foolishness" (70) like collecting china, and has outfitted his rooms according to the latest aesthetic trends. Such figures reflect Oliphant’s conviction that the university might produce scholars or dilettantes, but rarely pastors.
Homerton College, Cambridge, the alma mater of Carlingford’s Nonconformist ministers, comes in for a different kind of criticism in Oliphant’s novels: its graduates, who appear in Salem Chapel and Phoebe, Junior, are noted for eloquent rhetoric and anti-Church of England zeal. They regularly schedule lectures which their congregations hope will prove the superiority of Dissent, an activity that Oliphant finds as narrow as a focus on Greek verbs or the decorative arts. Salem Chapel's Arthur Vincent combines "lofty candour" (39) with a conviction of his own enlightenment, but Oliphant claims that he is "entirely unacquainted with any world but that contracted one in which he had been brought up" (5). Phoebe, Junior’s Horace Northcote is "a political Non-conformist, a vigorous champion of the Dis-establishment Society, more successful on the platform than in the pulpit"(113), a description which again emphasizes a ministerial unconcern with day-to-day human living.
The Church of England clergyman was widely accepted as a gentleman, and though Nonconformist pastors may not have had access to such status based on church establishment, the argument of clerical education, often given as one of the supports of gentlemanly status, can certainly be made on behalf of Carlingford’s Cambridge-educated ministers. Yet in both traditions, Oliphant condemns the education that emphasizes ideas, reputation, or accomplishment over persons, and she depicts a resulting complacency or pretension that must be corrected through sincere engagement with parish life.
Oliphant, Margaret. The Curate in Charge. Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1987.
Oliphant, Margaret. Phoebe, Junior. NY: Viking Penguin, 1989.
Oliphant, Margaret. The Rector and The Doctor’s Family. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Oliphant, Margaret. Salem Chapel. NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
Last modified 8 June 2011