Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Double Plot of Salem Chapel

Many readers have observed that Mrs. Oliphant’s [1] Salem Chapel combines two rather ill-sorted narratives. The satiric story of the naïve young Nonconformist assuming his first pastorate among middle-class people is interwoven with a far more unlikely lurid tale of abduction and attempted murder. The wry and witty, though always warmly indulgent, observations about pride, ego, and class differences in the account of the relations of Mr. Vincent and his flock contrast with the highly pitched rhetoric of the episodes describing the events associated with the criminal cad Col. Mildmay. These strains of plot contain, however, one element in common: the strength of the power of shame. The lower register concern with reputation and approbation that motivates the newly hired minister suddenly seems inconsequential when the sexual purity of the virtuous Susan is cast in doubt, but in both cases the horror is largely focused on what others will think.

The literary development of the novel as a form corresponds to the rise of the bourgeoisie and many of the genre’s practitioners and consumer were, from the start, middle class. [2] The quarrel of the Salem Chapel crowd with the Established Church (like that of their predecessors who emigrated to Plymouth centuries earlier) was as much political as religious, signaling a dissent from the ruling class and a people’s determination to make decisions for themselves rather than simply obey orders from the traditional elites.

The verisimilitude of the depiction of the chapel and its congregants is a part of the broad movement toward greater realism in fiction during the nineteenth century. The middle class attributes of Mr. Tozer, Mr. Pigeon, and the others (which trouble the Cambridge-educated clergyman) are emphasized by their consistent identification with their businesses (“the butterman,” and “the poulterer”). The church-goers’ expectations from their minister are those of an employer and are expressed in mercantile terms. They are confident of their doctrinal convictions, but the church seems far more a social institution than a divine one, and tea-parties and pastoral visiting emerge as among their principal concerns. They share, though, with their spiritual shepherd an acute concern for the opinions of others.

The dominant tone of the realistic and satirical aspect of Salem Chapel is not far from Trollope or a good many passages of Dickens: a mild, tolerant acceptance of the foibles of humanity in which a wide range of characters are seen as alike hapless and sometimes weak, blind to their own limitations which the reader can so easily see. People in this arena regularly err, but they are not vicious. The deacons are upright and responsible, if narrow, and the reader who feels superior to them in intellect and taste will likely admire their character hardly the less. The head layman, Mr. Tozer, though as mundane as any of his co-religionists, rises to heroic stature in his plain-spoken sympathy and defense of Mr. Vincent.

The villainous Mildmay provides what might be considered the romance element in the story, departing from the initial plot and requiring extraordinary coincidences while introducing themes of seduction, abduction, crime, and madness. While the action centering around Mr. Vincent and his flock getting acquainted might be regarded in the old Freudian shorthand as occurring in the realm of the ego and superego, this new element is enacted deep within the id. While most people never find themselves confronted by monstrous crime, stories of violence and sexual exploitation have been popular from ancient tragedies through medieval romances and broadside ballads to the detective stories noted by this week’s New York Times Book Review.

The fact that such stories have long been popular is, of course, itself sufficient reason to push a writer dependent on income from sales toward such themes. The fact is that “sensation novels” were enjoying a particular vogue at the time of the book’s publication in 1863. [3] Though Oliphant was ambivalent about the use of “shock,” she recognized the “remarkable quickening of public interest” in books that employed it. [4] The reason at the base of the appeal of sex and violence is, of course, the simple fact that passions and anxieties associated with love and death are the most powerful emotions of human life.

By including two registers of plotline, Oliphant mirrors her readers’ psyches and her own. We each live our lives in continual pursuit of self-respect and community approbation, yet everyone encounters as well the more tumultuous forces of desire and fear. Whereas a good deal of the social realm is, to one extent or another, within the control of the individual, the demands of eros and thanatos are non-negotiable. Though ratiocination may serve well in the struggles of the ego, it has far less influence in affairs involving sexuality (and pleasure in general) or mortality (and pain in general). Far from having created a monstrous fiction like the one imagined by Horace with a horse’s neck and a human head, Oliphant has accurately reflected what is the universal human life experience. Discordant it may be, but no more so than our daily lives.

1. I confess to a weakness for these usages, though I am aware that they seem to others obsolete or even disagreeable. Mrs. Gaskell, Dr. Johnson, Lady Mary Wortley Montague. After this initial declaration, though, I shall observe current usage of the surname only.

2. The outsize contribution of women to the ranks of both readers and writers of fiction is another indication of the lower social status of the novel. Even in novels written by men, the representation of a female perspective is often prominent as in works of Defoe and Richardson.

3. The fashion is evident in parts of Charles Dickens’ work and more obviously in that of Wilkie Collins. Women were prominent among the practitioners of sensation fiction. Though many are unread today, authors like Ellen (Mrs. Henry) Wood, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Evelyn Benson and Elizabeth Caroline Grey were once best-sellers.

4. See her article “Sensation Novels” in Blackwood’s Magazine, May 1862, pp. 574-80.

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