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.
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.