The Cloven Foot (1879) – M.E. Braddon

This novel is a top-notch example from the school of ‘Sensational Novels’. It really is a neglected gem! Packed with murder, bigamy, treachery and heartache, there is enough for anybody who needs a little drama in their lives.

In the beginning, the novel follows two seemingly unrelated stories, and I nearly abandoned it after chapter VI. Be this as it may, the opening is intriguing. Jasper Treverton is on his death bed and has sent for his young cousin John Treverton to visit him. John arrives at the manor, meets with Jasper’s adopted daughter Laura Malcolm, and has his interview with the squire before the old man pops his clogs. During the reading of the will, Laura is left an annuity of 6000 a year, and John is left the estate… BUT … and there is of course a bizarre clause: he must marry, Miss Laura Malcolm, within a year of the squire’s death!

We then follow the the lives of the Chicots. Mademoiselle Le Chicot is an infamous London actress causing quite a stir in the theatres. Her husband Jack is much the opposite – trapped in his failed marriage, he is the insignificant partner, known exclusively in the fashionable world, as ‘the husband of La Chicot’.

We return to John Treverton and read how he frequently visits the Manor House to see Miss Malcolm. They genuinely seem to like each other, and their relationship blossoms. Laura has a best friend called Celia with whom she shares all her secrets. Celia’s father is the local clergyman, who also has a son – a good for nothing scamp and minor poet called Edward, who frequently idles his time away at the Manor House in the company of Laura and Celia. He is dreadfully jealous of Laura’s growing bond with John Treverton, and he struggles with his unrequited feelings.

Eventually John and Laura declare their love for each other and tie the knot. Old Jasper’s will is then realised, and John, after an intense spell of melancholy, mysteriously does a runner leaving Laura totally devastated, but in full legal possession of the manor and estate.

We are now back with the La Chicots, and the glamourous Zaire Chicot is given a priceless diamond necklace by a wealthy Jewish admirer. One evening whilst she is asleep she is strangled, and her necklace is stolen. Jack is suspected of her murder, and so he goes off in search of a constable (never to return), while the whole of the boarding house is left shocked by the brutal crime.

John returns to the manor and to Laura, his wife. He vaguely describes his situation to her (not mentioning the murder of course), and they decide to get remarried in a distant parish in Cornwall where nobody will recognise them. Laura is glad that they are now properly husband and wife, but she is troubled by the fraud – she is aware that neither the estate nor and money legally belong to them (as they are contrary to Jasper’s will). She suggests to John that they should forfeit their rights, and confess the deception to the two trustees (her own father and the faithful Treverton family solicitor).

Edward, Celia’s jealous brother, already knows John’s (aka Jack Chicot’s) dark past and heads to London for further evidence. He brings a young doctor who knew the Chicots’ intimately to visit the vicarage on pretense of them being old chums. The doctor then confirms Edward’s suspicions. Realising the noose is tightening around him, John confesses all to the trustees and Laura. He denies the murder of Zaire Chicot, although the evidence seems stacked against him, his solicitor and the vicar both firmly believe his story. The solicitor with uncanny acumen has a hunch that Zaire may have been in a previous marriage before her ‘marriage’ to John, and decides they must go to Auray, France to see if there is any evidence. Happily it does indeed turn out to be the case, so John and Laura’s first marriage was legitimate after all, and the estate is safe. Edward’s jealous passion now gets the better of him, and Scotland Yard are suddenly at the manor, arresting John and taking him to London for a trial.

In a nutshell, there is a superb trial, and with John’s clever defense lawyer, Mr. Leopold, and with his former landlady Mrs. Evitt’s long overdue confession of what she saw, Treverton is finally exonerated and returns to his wife and his estate a free man.  Of course Edward sensibly decides on a life in the colonies, and the novel concludes with a tip-toppingly, rippingly jolly ‘happily ever after’ style ending.

Having read many of Braddon’s other novels, I’m deeply surprised that The Cloven Foot hasn’t remained one of her more popular books. In my humble opinion it knocks the socks off of Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), the two books which she is mainly remembered for writing.

Advertisements

My Reading List (2016)

After a long hiatus I’m back posting on this blog. My apologies for the delay in replying to comments, and indeed for not commenting on your posts!

I thought it might be a good way to start the year by posting a list of all the books I read in 2016.

My Reading List

As you can see, most of the books I read were rather obscure 19th Century novels!

1 Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood 1870
2 George Macdonald Thomas Wingfold, Curate 1876
3 Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson Left To Themselves: Being the Ordeal of Philip and Gerald 1891
4 Joseph Crawhall The Village Curate: an Interesting Tale 1855
5 Francis Edward Paget The Vicar of Roost 1859
6 Francis Edward Paget The Curate of Cumberworth 1859
7 Mrs. Henry Wood The Shadow of Ashlydyat 1863
8 Sabine Baring-Gould The Broom-squire 1896
9 Mrs Henry Wood A Life’s Secrets 1862
10 Mrs Henry Wood Mrs. Halliburton’s Troubles 1862
11 Benjamin Disraeli The Young Duke 1831
12 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow 1874
13 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 2nd Series 1880
14 Hugh Walpole Mr Perrin and Mr Traill 1911
15 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 3rd Series 1885
16 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 4th Series 1885
17 Hugh Walpole The Sea Tower 1939
18 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 5th Series 1899
19 Mrs Henry Wood Johnny Ludlow – 6th Series 1899
20 Stanley J. Weyman Ovington’s Bank 1880
21 William Harrison Ainsworth Rookwood 1834
22 William Harrison Ainsworth Old St. Pauls: A Tale of the Plague 1841
23 James Payn Lost Sir Massingberd 1864
24 William Harrison Ainsworth The Lancashire Witches 1848
25 William Harrison Ainsworth Guy Fawkes 1840
26 Maria Edgeworth Castle Rackrent 1800
27 Susannah Strickland Hugh Lattimer, or The School Boys’ Friendship 1828
28 Anne Marsh-Caldwell Tales of the Woods and Fields 1836

Tales of the Woods and Fields (1836)

One of my fantastic readers asked me recently whether all early 19th century novels had happy endings. I answered yes, as up until this latest book I had always believed this to be the case!

The Tales of the Woods and Fields is a harrowing society novel by Anne Marsh-Caldwell. It was first published in 1836 in three volumes. Volume the first, and the first thirty six pages of volume the second contain ‘A Country Vicarage’. The remaining two volumes are taken up with the long poem ‘A Tale of an Oak Tree’ and a further novel called ‘Love and Duty’. I have decided to review only the first tale: ‘A Country Vicarage’.

The novel opens with a series of letters discussing the beautiful but young and naive Louisa Evelyn, who has received an invitation to a fashionable ball. There is concern in the vicarage about whether it would be good for Louisa to go. Charles, the son of Mr. Evelyn’s oldest friend, is secretly in love with Louisa, and worries that if she mingles with high society it might have a detrimental effect on her.

Louisa attends the dance. On her arrival at Dangerfield, she is scrutinised by the French maid who finding nothing suitable in Louisa’s trunk, dresses her in something fashionable from her mistresses wardrobe. The hostess Mrs. Carlton then presents her to the dining room and she is escorted to her place at the table. The author highlights the shallow and critical attitude of British upper class society by revealing the thoughts and conversations of the guests, including a Duke, many of the gentry, some army officers, and countless single ladies. Louisa is initially admired for her beauty, but is soon politely mocked when it gets out that she is only the parson’s daughter. Sir Harry’s recollection of her dressed in ‘a blue pinafore with torn bonnet’ is spread around the table by several Lady Marys who ‘happening to be within hearing, looked, I am sorry to say, rather ill-naturedly pleased at this description’. Louisa feels alienated during the dinner, and she is unable to add anything to the fatuous conversation. This continues the following morning at breakfast and at the races, and Mr. Evelyn’s experiment ‘seemed in a fair way of succeeding’.

At the ball, Lord William Melville solicits an introduction to Louisa and here she has her first experiences of love. Louisa spends the next few days languishing for Melville. Eventually they meet again at a play in the following chapter. There follows a brutal coach accident and Lord Melville runs to the crash to aid Louisa who is shocked and faint but not really hurt. Melville then escorts Louisa and Mrs. Carlton to her house, and Louisa who now feels decidedly worse, is carried into the dwelling by his Lordship. The author alludes to many classical literary references (especially to Greek mythology and to Shakespeare), which makes it a little difficult and a disjointed read if one needs to ‘refresh’ ones knowledge of the Classics (lovelier than Juliet… softer than Miss Haller … innocent as Perdita… more tender than Ophelia… more fatal than that of Circe, etc).

Louisa spends a vast amount of time with Lord Melville at Dangerfield, and she falls hopelessly in love with him. It is a mutual affection, but the naïve Louisa expects too much. Eventually she is summoned back to the country vicarage by Mrs. Digby, and there begins a gradual decline in her health. By degrees it is noticed by her sister and the maid, and indeed by Charles. One day he catches her crying while nursing her sister’s baby in the garden and becomes aware she is clearly in love with someone. This is later confirmed by one of his chums in a letter, as it has become widespread knowledge in society that the lucky Louisa has caught the eye of the wealthy, titled and most eligible bachelor, Lord Melville. Charles is heartbroken by the news, but is determined to throw himself into his studies and help Louisa the best he can.

Mr. Phillips (Mary’s husband) returns after a long period of absence in Ireland. He notices Louisa’s strange affliction, which is verified by Charles later in the evening. Without giving Louisa’s secret away, he explains her situation. Phillips forms a plan to send Louisa away with his wife and children for a change of scene.

One day while out walking in the copse, Louisa is surprised to see Lord Melville, and instantly hugs him. Realising her impropriety she shrieks and runs back to the house. Charles who happened to be nearby, confront Melville, and there is a haughty exchange of words. Charles convinces Melville it is imperative that he doesn’t delay formalities with Mr. Evelyn, and that he declares his intentions honestly, for her sake.

The next morning Mr. Evelyn receives a letter from Lord Melville requesting permission to present himself at the vicarage. At this point in the novel Charles takes permanent leave from the house. Louisa and Lord Melville are married in less than a month after his first appearance at the vicarage, and it appears their early married life is one of complete bliss. He rents a pretty cottage ‘of gentility’ in Wales and they spend the winter enjoying each other’s company and activities. Things take a turn when Louisa becomes pregnant and she cannot partake in all their usual entertainments. The selfish Melville sees Louisa solely as a great and beautiful prize, won to gratify his own needs.

They move to Melville’s London residence, and Louisa meets the dowager and his sisters. The author gives her readers another unflattering and detailed portrayal of upper class attitudes. Melville leaves Louisa with the women and goes to his local club. Louisa feels isolated and out of place in the house. When she goes to bed the young sisters and the dowager head off to the opera and Louisa is left feeling desolate.

The next morning Louisa is ill and fatigued, and the whole family, including the marchioness, take breakfast in Louisa’s chambers as she reclines on a couch. There is an interesting discussion. The family plainly state that it is out of the question that Louisa attends church, but they propose she will naturally be well enough for an afternoon display in the carriage around the park. ‘We will be the admiration of the whole world!’ Louisa argues that if she isn’t well enough for church, she won’t be well enough for a drive. It appears her new family are only pious when they are on display. This contrasts with Louisa’s father and Charles, who live genuine pious lifestyles back at the vicarage.

It is a long day and the family spends hours parading in their new carriage and conversing with their set. In the evening, Louisa is subjected to a long and tiresome formal meal with more aristocratic strangers. Louisa retires at a late hour, and feeling depressed she starts to worry that her life will continue like this – separated from the person her unschooled heart loves, and left to mix with the aristocratic sets which she feels alienated from. As the months go by, Louisa realises the gulph is insurmountable. Lord Melville leads his own life, and Louisa is constantly in the company of his family, who practically live with her, and she has nobody from her own/old peer group to relate to. Her poor health trapped her in Melville’s family and their set: ‘the empty fleeting bubbles of mere fashionable life’.

After the birth of her daughter, Louisa realises she cannot even control the nursery. The family hires their ‘own’ people for that role. A further unsettling realisation hits Louisa when her husband asks her what she is doing this summer! It transpires he is going to Norway for an expedition and will not be returning until the following spring around April. Louisa is told to enjoy herself as much as she can and spare no expense ‘there is the world before you’. She realises that any dreams she harboured of them being a normal couple are well and truly dashed.

Lord Melville goes to Norway and Louisa and her in-laws go to Babington Castle in the Midlands for a season. She also spends time with her sister, and they holiday on the coast. Louisa arrives in Park Lane for her husband’s expected arrival the following April – but he arrives only four months later. During the long absence Louisa’s natural vigour and health is restored. On Melville’s return there is an initial revival of their early intimacy and socialising, and Louisa naively assumes they will final become close. As can be imagined, Lord Melville soon returns to amusing and entertaining himself, while his wife is neglected. Matters finally come to a head when Louisa hears her husband is having an affair with an Italian actress ‘who has all the exciting traits she herself fails to entice in Melville’. Melville now becomes short tempered and even impatient with his wife. The family and servants follow suit and Louisa begins to feel friendless and frustrated. Melville begins to despise his own infant daughter and has no patience with Louisa and her tears.

At the start of the volume II the infant Miss Melville comes down with a fever, but she is neglected by all the servants and nurses. She calls for her mama, but the rooms are so far away she cannot be heard. When Louisa finally becomes aware her child is sick the rest of the family think it is nonsense and an excuse for Louisa not to leave Brighton and attend a party in London where the Royals will be present. Melville needs Louisa to attend with him to prove their marriage is fine. He is anxious to clear his reputation and to prove to society he is not having an affair. Of course, Melville gets his way, and the very sick child along with the family set off for London. On route, the child becomes dangerously sick, but the nurse and the selfish Lord Melville insist she is fine. Louisa reaches breaking point, and realising the seriousness of her child’s illness, she hysterically orders the carriage to stop. She defies her husband and causes such a scene, that she cannot be ignored this time. They are released at the next inn and Melville with a mock bow drives off leaving the distressed mother and daughter behind. Medical advice is immediately sought, but it is too late. The child dies and Louisa’s harrowing shrieks pierce the inn. She is desperately agitated so the innkeeper calls a visiting clergyman upstairs for assistance. Louisa recognises him as her old friend Charles, and she drops to the floor in a fainting fit.

When she is revived, Charles comforts her with reassurances of God’s eternal love and protection. They pray together and Louisa is put to bed. Charles then sends the news to Lord Melville. Of course, Melville is envious of Charles and for the first time in his life, he feels genuine remorse for his behaviour. He orders his four horses to be harnessed and to be instantly dispatched to the inn. Meanwhile, Louisa takes a turn for the worse, and Charles is again summoned upstairs by the maid. He finds Louisa in the last stages of life. Her heart ‘was hurrying with the rapidity of a mill wheel’. He kneels down beside her to hear her confession – and here she expires.

In a nutshell: a perceptive novel packed with realism and frustration. The author Anne Caldwell Marsh offers a scathing critique of the emptiness of ‘fashionable’ society and its destructive influence on human lives.

Forgotten British Novels (1800-1829)

For those of you who enjoy obscure or long forgotten books, I’ve found a superb database cataloguing British novels published between 1800-1829. Created by the good folks at Cardiff University, the database allows users to examine bibliographical records of 2,272 works of fiction written by approximately 900 authors, along with a large number of contemporary materials.

Perhaps you will discover something interesting like the works of the prolific Mary Meeke, who wrote novels with curious titles such as: Midnight Weddings (1802), Old Wife and Young Husband (1804) and There is a Secret! Find it Out (1808).

The database can be found at: http://www.british-fiction.cf.ac.uk/browse.html

The Village Curate: an Interesting Tale (1855)

Well, firstly… an interesting tale my arse. This exceedingly rare chapbook by Joseph Crawhall was published in Glasgow sometime between 1855-1860. It’s a small pamphlet of 27 pages and records a clerical tale with a clichéd formula. I’m assuming it’s incredibly rare because it was binned by any sensible Victorian reader, who after spending a penny on it, felt decidedly robbed!

The story begins by introducing Lord Belmont who has enormous wealth and a high status in society. Belmont suspects the ‘encomiums of flattery’ bestowed on him are somewhat insincere and so he feigns financial ruin to see what will happen. As one would expect from such a clichéd story, he is shunned by all his friends (except his old chum Lord Bremere). Belmont explains how he seeks a woman to marry – someone who will accept him for his character not his money. And so he leaves the metropolis wearing nothing but the garb of a rustic cottager, and assumes the grand appellation of George Trueman. He boards a stagecoach for Norwich, and continues onwards to a little village near the sea. Incidentally, he owns the village, but of course none of his tenants know him.

At the village inn he sits with the locals and listens to a conversation about the resent misfortunes of the local curate, parson Benley, who it appears is held in high approbation. It transpires that Benley is heavy in debt, and surprise, surprise, just so happens to hold the curacy gifted by Lord Belmont, and even more astonishing he has been imprisoned for his debts by the lord’s steward. It emerges the Benley owes the sum of 300 pounds. Naturally, on the following morning, our hero Lord Belfort anonymously clears the debt, and as fortune would have it, he bumps into Benley’s children (Harry and Charlotte) on his way back to the inn. When offering to carry her baskets, he becomes smitten by Charlotte’s beauty and decides he must have her for his wife.

We are now introduced to Benley who is festering away in prison. After he is given Trueman’s letter and financial aid, he kneels down to thank God for this good fortune.  In the mean time Trueman on one of his evening walks espies Charlotte being harassed by his creepy steward. The scoundrel is trying to molest her, and while sneaking a kiss, he is knocked to the ground by our hero, Trueman, who pounces from a hedge. After reviving the distressed Charlotte near a stream, he declares his undying love for her. She of course cannot think of joy while her father is languishing in gaol. So what happens next? Young Harry comes running up the road with the news of Mr. Benley’s release. Trueman is invited back to the cottage and is heartily thanked for his services. He now fires his steward and promotes Benley to the vacant position. Benley cottons on to the ruse, and comparing the handwriting from his anonymous benefactor, to the handwriting from Lord Belfont’s letter, he realises they are the same. Trueman holds his hands up and admits he is Lord Belfont and the story ends in a happy marriage and joyous celebrations in the village.

 

 

The Vicar of Roost (1859)

This epistolary novel, published together with ‘The Curate of Cumberworth’ is  a thinly-veiled, half satirical work that mocks the British Establishment. The author, Francis Edward Paget, attacks what he considers to be the slovenly neglect and unsound doctrine of the mid-Victorian Church. In the character of Mr. Soaper, the vicar of Roost, we can perhaps glean what Paget perceived were some of its major faults during this period. Unlike a few of his earlier works he reveals his concerns through sarcasm and humour rather than his usual diatribe, and although the plot is weak, the narrative is light-hearted and entertaining, and the characters are well developed.

Milston Church.JPG

Spoiler Alert

The novel opens with Mr. Dove writing in his journal. Dove is telling the story of his family’s misfortunes. Once destined to be the squire of Verdon Hall, Dove writes how his father, a wealthy merchant, had invested his fortune into a local bank, only to lose every penny when it folded in bankruptcy. Dove recounts how his father disappeared soon after the news, and how his mother frantically searching for him outside, had slipped in the snow, leaving her a paralysed and bed-ridden cripple for life. The servants later found the elder squires walking stick floating in the river, and then of course his body. After settling with their creditors, Dove and his mother leave Verdon Hall, with ‘nothing but their clothes, their poor father’s picture, and perhaps a score of books’. Mrs. Dove is unexpectedly left a small legacy from one of her servants in their will, and the money pays for Dove to attend university. After his studies, Dove is offered a privately tutorship (found by the Provost), and a curacy by the Vicar of Roost, Mr. Soaper, with rent-free lodgings in the village school-house.

Dove arrives in the village of Roost and is ambushed by a group of ‘shoeless children’ who throw stones at his horse. He chats with them briefly before bumping into Mr. Soaper at the local butcher’s shop. Paget dedicates the rest of the chapter to the witty ramblings of Mr. Soaper and his shallow conversations with Dove, and we learn a lot about Soaper’s Anglican philosophy. It appears Soaper lives an extravagant and comfortable lifestyle on the tithes of his parishioners. He is grossly overweight, falsely modest, and clearly inactive in his clerical duties. He has expensive folios of the Church Fathers which he’s never opened, and he repreaches old sermons written by his grandfather. One can truly appreciate his slovenly attitude when he says ‘he left behind him nearly a hundred sermons. I have been preaching them over and over again these twenty years, and shall continue to preach them til my congregation follows the advice contained in them’. In stark contrast, Dove arrives at the school-house and is given a small bedroom beneath a sloping roof, and a sparsely furnished living room facing the noisy playground, with a faulty fire-place that fills his digs with smoke!

Mr. Dove has an unpromising first meeting with the vicar’s wife and his daughter.  Mrs. Soaper has strong and definite opinions about people’s rightful stations ‘there can be no question that the beneficed and unbeneficed clergy stand it totally different positions’ – and it would appear a curates place is definitely beneath hers. She advises that a curate must ‘work, obey orders, and remain in the background’. She also goes out of her way to thwart all her husband’s promises to the curate.

The Soapers take a holiday to Brighton and Dove is left in charge of the parish. He reflects on the difficulties he will likely encounter in the village, and tries to convince himself he is content under the vicar’s rule. He muses ‘in the Navy I might have been promoted, but in the church I can feel myself quite safe’.  He resolves to ‘go on quietly…keeping out of rows and bothers’. During the Sunday service Dove notes the many flaws of the church (like a good Anglo-Catholic!) and ponders why all the rest of the population doesn’t attend. When he asks the clerk why this might be, he is told ‘some can’t come; some could if they would, but don’t’, and ‘some make Sunday their pleasuring day’. Paget leads us to believe there is a complete reticence in the parish, from both the clergy and the congregation. Against the wishes of the clerk, Dove then makes a brief parish visit to the father of one of the boys he first met when he arrived in the village. He is shocked by the squalid conditions he finds in ‘the Moorcot hovels’ and decides to act. After the visit he calls on Mr. Tite, the steward, to ask if anything can be done. Tite, becomes angry with this interference, and tells Dove he is acting above his station.

Dove writes to the Soapers while they are away on holiday and makes several parochial visits to the Ashe family.  When he receives Mr. Soaper’s response it is trivial and absurd. Soaper sympathises with the Ashe family, comparing their life-threatening illnesses to his mild indigestion after eating dressed crab (timballes, au veloute) late in the night! He continues with a pompous lecture about Isaac Ashe, and of his particular aversion to the family. This is followed by a warning not to upset his seniors (the steward and the Marquis), and how visiting the sick can cause contagion amongst the upper classes and must be avoided! Soaper also states that if there are any repercussions from this incident, he will deny any knowledge.

In Chapter V. Dove receives some unexpected but welcomed visitors. His old friend Harry has brought the Marquis of Kingsbury to visit. His Lordship was keen to talk to Dove after receiving his letter about the conditions at ‘the hovel’. Dove takes the high-principled and decent Lord Kingsbury to inspect the dwellings, and afterwards Kingsbury promises to solve the issues through his steward. Harry warns Dove that ‘Tite and Soaper will now lay their heads together to bowl you out, and make Roost too hot to hold you’ once this affair gets abroad. This indeed is the case as within a week Dove receives another scathing letter from the vicar of Roost, which curiously begins as a strong condemnation for his actions, but ends on a rather pleasant and jovial note. Dove discovers that the first and second parts of the letter are written on different types of paper, and concludes ‘in spite of his care to adapt his paper to his correspondents, Mr. Soaper had inclosed (sic) a sheet in my letter which was never intended for my eye; and I have most unluckily perused what was designed for another person’.

The narrative rolls forward ten months and we find Dove reminiscing on his time in the parish. He recalls how his relationship with the Soaper’s has remained the same: cold and formal, and how his ‘interference with the hovel’ has ruined any chance of that changing. Dove elaborates on how his hands are still tied when it comes to any parish improvements. His requests to set up a formal night-school have been denied (on the pretext that it would undermine the vicar’s importance), and he is deprived of holiday (due to the vicar’s supposed illnesses). On several visits to the Soaper residence, Dove encounters Miss Soaper alone (as Mr. Soaper has been too ill to receive him and Mrs. Soaper has been away). Although nothing more than monosyllabic sentences are exchanged between them, Dove is called to account for his improprietous meetings, and leaves the house confused and amazed at the misunderstanding.

There is then an amusing scene where the Marquis and his family (along with Henry) come to church unexpectedly on a Sunday that Soaper is too idle to prepare a sermon. It puts the Soapers’ completely out of humour seeing their curate being praise for his preaching! Of course, the following Sunday, Dove is sent to the parish of Sunnymede ‘to be out of the way’, but the Marquis and his folks have also decided to attend there. As one can imagine this exasperates Mr. and Mrs. Soaper. Dove is also invited to the Marquis’s Castle after the service, but refuses to accept as he doesn’t wish to further antagonise the Soapers. Walking home in inclement weather after church, Dove is taken ill with pleurisy and is laid up for the next few weeks. Although he receives no words of sympathy from the vicar or his wife he does receive a number of nursing offers from the women of the village, and small gifts from the children which helps to lift his spirits. After his illness, Dove takes a short reprieve with Harry and the General, much to the irritation of the selfish Mr. Soaper. Dove returns to a still sulking vicar, who then tries to dismiss him from the curacy. Totally bewildered, Dove denies all accusations thrown at him by Soaper and his wife, and asks that the matter is referred to the bishop. He is so shocked by Soaper’s unreasonableness that he will not agree to resign until he is either condemned or acquitted.

On the following morning Dove meets a rather indignant Mrs. Soaper at the station, who has decided to fight her husband’s corner with the bishop herself. Mrs. Soaper refuses any assistance from Dove, and proceeds to board a first class carriage with a stranger. During the journey she is taken hostage in the long tunnel and told to exchange clothes with the stranger, or she will be shot dead. She nervously complies and on arriving at Chadminster is mistaken for the fugitive, and detained by the detectives. Dove assists Mrs. Soaper by visiting her milliner, before notifying the bishop of the situation. Mrs. Soaper finally shows contrition for her behaviour, and accepts Dove’s assistance in seeing her home.

In the concluding chapter we finally see clerical harmony in Roost. Mr. Sidney, the vicar of Sunnymede, has now passed away, and Mr. Soaper has ridden over to the bishop to solicit the position. In the mean time, Dove receives a letter apparently written by the Marquis offering him the vacancy. As Dove receives this communication on April Fools’ Day, he presumes it’s a hoax, and disregards the letter. Dove is finally called to the Bishop’s palace and formally offered the incumbency. The novel ends with Mr. Dove reflecting on his good fortune, and of his intentions to serve the parish to the best of his abilities – following conscientiously in the footsteps of the late Mr. Sidney.

The Curate of Cumberworth (1859)

Short Review

In this rather amusing novel by Francis E. Paget we follow the arrival of the ambitious and well-meaning curate, the Rev. John Smith, who is met with opposition at every corner. At loggerheads with the entire village of Cumberworth, from the aristocracy to the village sexton, before his first week is even over, we read how even a simple task like regulating the church clock can impact an entire community.

Curate

Spoiler Alert

Here is the first plot spoiler from my list of Victorian novels about clergy and parish life. This Mid-Victorian book by Francis Edward Paget is both entertaining and mildly satirical. In a series of witty anecdotes the author explores the theme of time and perception, and reveals the indolent and complacent attitudes of the Anglican Church during this period.

In the first chapter we see the new curate Mr. John Smith complaining about the train’s delay. He is so pedantic about time that in arguing with the train official he alights without some of his own luggage, and accidently takes a parcel containing a bonnet, which causes him embarrassment later in the story. He meets Mr. Gibson, the Rector of Cumberworth, and from their very first meeting there is already a subtle tension. Smith is young, restless, and enthusiastic about his placement. Gibson, of course is elderly, cautious and self-satisfied. They have opposing views about religion and ministry. After expressing his wish to jump straight into parish life, Smith is offered the lightest of duties: the care and maintenance of the church clock.

Smith takes his lodgings with a Mrs. Finch who is petulant, reactionary, and very particular in her ways. Pretty much like everyone else in the village. There is instant friction between Smith and Mrs. Finch, but they manage to keep things cordial, well… at least for now! On the following morning Smith goes to see Mrs. Beccles about the key for the clock tower and is met with a curt refusal. In fairness, Mrs. Beccles is eccentric and possibly even insane. When he tells Mrs. Beccles he would like to regulate the church clock in keeping with London Greenwich time, Mrs. Beccles argues: ‘why should the clock be regulated’ to which Smith answers: ‘because my good madam, it is half an hour too fast’. Mrs. Beccles retorts: ‘honoured sir, to make such a change as that would throw the whole parish out of their reckonings!’.

The next day, Mr. Smith, again with no useful occupation decides to explore the village. On crossing a field he startles some of the squire’s animals and is chased across the river. During this escapade he tears his clothes and arrives at the other side quite drenched and splattered with mud. He also damages the fence of the aforementioned squire, Sir Tukesbury, who hearing the disturbance, mistakes him for an escaped convict! Their misunderstanding is soon cleared up and Smith is invited to dinner the following evening. When he returns to Mrs. Finch’s home in his dishevelled state, she becomes hostile. Mrs. Finch will not budge an inch on any of her views! After his tiring adventure, Smith’s reasonable request for tea is met with ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but we don’t drink tea until seven’. When he compromises and asks for water, he is met with an equally unreasonable answer ‘you’ll excuse me, Mr. Smith, but you are much too warm to drink water’. They eventually descend into a heated debate about the placement of Mr. Smith’s books. The author muses ‘when Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war’.

After his libations, Smith proceeds to his engagement at Sir Tukesbury’s mansion and happens to overhear the disgruntled villagers discussing how they missed the visit of the Prince of Wales due to the church clock being wrong. The villagers initially blame Mrs. Beccles, but she firmly puts the blame of Smith, saying ‘he but her up to it’. He disappears after hearing their curses and threats, and arrives at the squire’s mansion ‘extremely late’ for dinner. During the party he overhears the Major discussing the disappearance of his sister’s bonnet and the distress it has caused. Smith is gallant enough to admit he was the culprit, and the Major reluctantly accepts his apology.

It transpires that Mr. Smith has indeed upset the whole village with his clock meddling. The changes to the squire’s stable clock and the church clock have definitely put everybody out of their reckoning! And when he returns to Mrs. Finch’s after the dinner party, he is again lectured about the propriety of keeping an early hour, and the two debate the likeliness of Smith getting his own latch key. Obviously, he doesn’t get one – and Mrs. Finch retires to bed informing Smith that Mrs. Beccles called for him twice that evening. Things come to a head after Smith visits Mrs. Beccles the following morning, and she suspiciously resigns the key. Now summoned by the imaginary ‘Gentleman in drab’, the insane Mrs. Beccles puts stones into the church tower lock during the night, and on the following morning, when nobody is able to get into the tower to ring the bells, or indeed wind up the clock, the curate obstinately starts the Sunday service early (to an empty church), still unable to accept his own watch is wrong! The villagers finally get their own back on the curate, and tolling the bell for evening service, they send a messenger to Smith’s lodgings, requesting his presence for evensong. Off his guard, he rushes out, leaving Mrs. Finches’ house unlocked, and during the interim his infamous watch is stolen!

Towards the end of the novel he finally has his epiphany and realises his watch must have been broken during the escapade with the cows! In the concluding chapter, Smith, summoned by the rector (who’s incidentally received a letter from the bishop accusing the curate of High-Church practices), explains how he’s made a terrible hash of his parish duties, but had no intention of extolling popery. The Rector and the curate reach a mutual understanding – and one is left hoping that the remainder of the Rev. John Smith’s curacy went smoother than his first couple of weeks!