The Chronicles of Carlingford by Margaret Oliphant

Known as Mrs. Oliphant, Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (1828-1897) was a prolific Scottish writer with a bibliography consisting of novels, travel books, historical works, and volumes of literary criticism.

Among her best-known works is the Chronicles of Carlingford, inspired by Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series. The series depicts the victorian life in the small town of Carlingford, and a large number of the characters have ties with the church.

How to read The Chronicles of Carlingford in Order

The Chronicles of Carlingford consists of two short stories, one short novel, and four long novels, published between 1861 and 1876. All but one book was released in the period 1861-65. The last one was published in 1876.

Any of the stories can be read on their own, although reading them in order of publication provides a greater appreciation of Mrs. Oliphant’s writing style and skills.

The Executor (1861, short story)
The Rector (1863, short story)
The Doctor’s Family (1863)
Salem Chapel (1863)
The Perpetual Curate (1864)
Miss Marjoribanks (1865)
Phoebe Junior (1876)

The following descriptions are adapted from several publishers.

The Executor – In the small village of Carlingford, the late Mrs. Thompson left behind a testament that took the community by surprise. Her attorney, John Brown didn’t draft it. The inheritance is left to a mystery daughter which must be found within three years. If undiscovered, the inheritance would be passed on to John Brown…

The Rector – Carlingford awaits the arrival of their new rector. Will he be high church or low? And–for there are numerous unmarried ladies in Carlingford–will he be a bachelor? Mr. Proctor, 50, had found fulfillment as a Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford. Now, moving outside academia, he starts as Rector of Carlingford’s parish church, fancying himself immune to womanhood; he is yet to encounter the blue ribbons and dimples of Miss Lucy Wodehouse.

The Doctor’s Family – Young Dr. Rider desires to make his life in Carlington’s freshly created quarter. Already upset by his improvident brother’s return from Australia, he is taken aback when his brother’s family and sister-in-law, Nettie, follow him to Carlingford. But the sensitive doctor has yet to discover Nettie’s allure–or her unshakeable Australian will.

Salem Chapel – Arthur Vincent is a recent Homerton College, Cambridge graduate who has been offered to pastor Salem Chapel following the retirement of its former preacher, Mr Tufton. Chapel life is inextricably linked to Carlingford’s mercantile centre, and the pleasant bustle of tea parties, singing classes, philanthropic and missionary activities echoes the buzz of business.

The Perpetual Curate – Frank Wentworth is the popular Perpetual Curate of Carlingford’s lovely St Roque’s Church. The position is poorly paid and has no district attached, but he has informally taken over the poor district of Wharfside and is proud of the “great work” being done there. He has yet to express his feelings for Lucy Wodehouse, who works with him. Then a series of incidents damage his reputation and shake his confidence.

Miss Marjoribanks – Returning home to care for her widowed father, Dr. Marjoribanks, Lucilla quickly integrates herself into Carlingford society, hoping to set the tone with her exclusive Thursday evening parties. Lucilla is a superior person in every manner, not least in regard to men. She is optimistic and resourceful, showcasing a complete absence of self-doubt.

Phoebe Junior – Phoebe Beecham’s father is the Dissenting minister in an affluent London chapel. Phoebe “Junior” is well-educated and was raised with ladylike manners. When she makes a long visit to her shopkeeper grandparents in Carlingford, she expects to adjust to their lower socioeconomic status. However, Phoebe discovers a social network that includes Anglican gentry and Dissenters. These young people each have their own challenges to deal with, and getting together brings them new joys.

Writing the Chronicles of Carlingford

Margaret Oliphant faced financial challenges after her husband, the stained glass artist Frank Wilson Oliphant, passed away from tuberculosis in 1859 in Rome. Struggling economically as a widow, she found inspiration in those difficult times

After a meeting that didn’t go so well with her editors, Margaret Oliphant decided to write a story, later known as the first chronicle, ‘The Executor.’ In her autobiography, she mentioned going home to her children after that meeting, and:

(…) that night, as soon as I had got them all to bed, I sat down and wrote a story which I think was some- thing about a lawyer, John Brownlow, and which formed the first of the Carlingford series,— a series pretty well forgotten now, which made a considerable stir at the time, and almost made me one of the popularities of literature. Almost, never quite, though ‘Salem Chapel’ really went very # near it, I believe. I sat up nearly all night in a passion of composition, stirred to the very bottom of my mind. The story was successful, and my fortune, comparatively speaking, was made.

Margaret Oliphant reached a pivotal moment in her career with the success of the Chronicles of Carlingford, widely regarded as her best work. If the series might not have the same level of recognition in popular culture compared to more prominent works, Oliphant’s work stands out for its focus on the everyday lives of its characters, exploring themes of class, gender, and societal expectations, a more intimate and detailed portrayal of the era.

For more Victorian readings, we invite you to discover where to start with Charles Dickens.