Morley Proctor, the title character in Margaret Oliphant’s The Rector ultimately marries Mary Wodehouse, Lucy’s older sister by twenty years. Still, Oliphant never lets Proctor off lightly in his encounters with women. Even when, in The Perpetual Curate, Proctor re-emerges from All-Souls to take another parish, his inept proposal both charms and amuses. At the same time, the basis for his proposal — "to try whether I was good for anything" — highlights Oliphant's central tenet of clerical value: the willingness to engage with the world. This passage shows the conflation of that clerical service with the necessity for marriage.
Mr Proctor got up from his chair and walked to the window. When he had looked out he came back, rather surpising Miss Wodehouse by his unlooked for movements. “I wanted very much to have a little conversation with you,” he said, growing again very red. “I daresay you will be surprised — but I have accepted another living, Miss Wodehouse;” and here the good man stopped short in a terrible state of embarrassment, not knowing what next to say.
“Yes?” said Miss Wodehouse, interrogatively. Her heart began to beat quicker, but perhaps he was only going to tell her about the new work he had undertaken; and then she was a woman and had some knowledge, which came by nature, how to conduct herself on an occasion such as this.
“I don’t know whether you recollect,” said Mr Proctor — “I shall never forget it — one time when we all met in a house where a woman was dying, — I mean your sister and young Wentworth, and you and I; — and neither you nor I knew anything about it,” said the late Rector, in a strange voice. It was not a complimentary way of opening his subject. . . .
“We neither one of us knew anything about it,” said Mr Proctor — “neither you how to manage her, nor I what to say to her, though the young people did. I have always thought of you from that time. I have thought I should like to try whether I was good for anything now — if you would help me,” said the middle-aged lover. When he had said this he walked over to the window, and once more looked out, and came back redder than ever. “You see we are neither of us young,” said Mr Proctor; and he stood by the table turning over books nervously, without looking at her, which was certainly an odd commencement for a wooing.
“That is quite true,” said Miss Wodehouse, rather primly. She had never disputed that fact by word or deed, but still it was not pleasant to have the statement thus thrust upon her without any apparent provocation. It was not the sort of thing which a woman expects to have said to her under such circumstances. “I am sure I hope you will do better — I mean be more comfortable — this time,” she continued, after a pause, sitting very erect on her seat.
“If you will help me,” said Mr Proctor, taking up one of the books and reading the name on it, which was lucky for him, for it was Miss Wodehouse’s name, which he either had forgotten or had never known.
And here they came to a dead stop.
Oliphant, Margaret. The Perpetual Curate. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987. 390-91.
Last modified 29 May 2011