1828 - 1897
Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) was born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh. Her father was a clerk, and growing up she lived in Glasgow and Liverpool. Her mother was keen that her daughter should be well read and so Oliphant was given a superior education to many of her sex. Her first novel, Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland (1849), achieved some success and was followed two years later with further novels. She began contributing to magazines including Blackwoods, for whom she was to write hundreds of short stories, essays, articles and serialised novels such as Katie Stewart (1853). She often contributed several pieces for a single edition and so many of these works were anonymous.
By 1857, Oliphant married her cousin Frank Wilson Oliphant, an artist, but he was to die seven years later from tuberculosis. This left Oliphant as the breadwinner with three young children and a pile of debts. In addition to these burdens, she later supported her alcoholic brother, Willie, and the three children of her other brother, Frank.
In the 19th century there were few career options for women. Oliphant produced over a hundred novels in her lifetime, many of them three volumes in length, which provided for her family's needs. An extremely prolific writer, her novels and short-stories make her one of the most important writers of Victorian fiction, but Oliphant has suffered for having produced too much. She wrote continuously out of financial necessity, but it has been to the detriment of her critical reputation.
Her fiction was supplemented by critical works such as A Literary History of Scotland (1882), studies on Francis of Assisi (1868), Thomas Chalmers the Scottish preacher and philosopher (1893), travel writing on Florence, Jerusalem and many other studies of people and places. Although she only lived for short periods in Scotland, much of her writing is set in Scotland or shows a concern with Scottish themes, and her writing displays strong connections with the Scots oral tradition. Katie Stewart, the historical Jacobean novel, is thought to be based on Oliphant's own family background.
Much of her later work is concerned with the injustice faced by women and is a significant criticism of the social values of the nineteenth century. Kirsteen (1890) also fits into this category.
Some of Oliphant's most powerful stories are her supernatural tales, compiled in A Beleaguered City and Other Tales of the Seen and Unseen (1885). These resonate with Oliphant's personal fascination in what happens to us after we die. The child mortality rate was high in Victorian times and having lost a young child herself, and indeed outliving her two other children, who died as young adults, these tales offer a sense of comfort to those left behind. She was a believing Christian but not an unquestioning one, and her faith did not provide her with easy consolation.
Miss Marjoribanks (1866) is a study of a woman's desire for power in the limited sphere of Victorian society. Lucilla (the Miss Marjoribanks of the title) is the daughter of a Scottish doctor, who refuses to marry conventionally. The theme of duty is ironically treated in the novel. The ideal of 'duty' was regarded as a high moral requisite in Victorian society, especially concerning women. The novel plays with this idea; domestic/social 'duty' is one of Lucilla's self-proclaimed aims but, in reality, disguises her quest for public power and influence. The moral code can be bent and manipulated to suit Lucilla's interests. The novel is filled with metaphors of battle and sovereignty in which Lucilla is described as ruling like a Queen. There is an implied tone of condescension in the way Lucilla regards men, or 'Them' as they are referred to. Men are dismissed as dull and weak. Miss Marjoribanks' disinterest in marriage turns the conventional tables on the relation of the sexes. In this novel it is the men who appear timid, domestic and driven by their passions, while she is in every way practical and sensible.
Lucilla's reflections on how best to utilize her abilities are a poignant insight into the situation for women of the nineteenth-century. Lucilla reflects that she might have stood for Parliament had she been a man. However, this option being closed to her, she is quite at a loss as to where to direct her power. Oliphant did not support the women's suffrage movements but it is clear that she felt women's social position to be a limited one.
Many of Oliphant's novels criticise subservient women but also the society which confines them. Kirsteen is one of her most complex novels. Rebelling against a marriage to an elderly suitor, Kirsteen sets out on a quest to find freedom but the decision to leave behind her family is not an easy or romantic one. Used to dependency on her father, she is cast out alone and forced to take responsibility for herself. The real journey is Kirsteen's move from idealistic child to a successful businesswoman, and despite the book's flaws (a tendency to moments of emotional cliché), it is a celebration of the ability of women to succeed independently of men.
Kirsteen herself is flawed by her snobbery. She criticises her brother-in-law for making a living for himself and yet, this is precisely what she is later to do. Unaware of the double standards she sets, Kirsteen is trapped in a society where belonging to the upper class, but being unmarried, means she can only rise so far. The isolation contingent upon success means that she is unable to form emotional relationships. The novel demonstrates that while her choice has left her life lacking in some respects, it has provided the motivation for her success in ways that she would never normally have been allowed to explore as a Victorian wife. Either choice would have ultimately meant living a half-life. Choosing independence, even with its emotional costs, is what makes the novel one of the most impressive of its kind.
Oliphant's supernatural stories have their heritage in the Scottish Ballads. In them the dead cross over the boundary to the living. They are the stories of lost souls. The title tale, 'The Beleaguered City' is a comment on Victorian materialism. A small French, cathedral town is taken over by the dead who try unsuccessfully to communicate with the living whom they have forced out of their homes. Only a bereaved couple, the originally sceptical mayor and his wife, respond to them, and when the visitants leave, human greed and materialism return, suggesting a bleak view of human nature.
It is debatable whether the dead have returned or whether the apparitions are borne out of mass hysteria. Not everyone sees the dead. The priest does not see the ghosts, perhaps because he has the strength of his faith and has never lost someone close to him. The story is a larger analysis of society and the need that people feel when they lose their faith. It is perhaps important that it is the women who see the dead. The idea recurs in these stories that females have a second sight of sorts and are more sympathetic to spiritual possibilities.
The protagonist in 'Old Lady Mary' is punished for not taking care of her niece while she was alive. She overlooks a provision in her will to care for her niece, and, upon her death, she is stuck in a kind of purgatory, unable to communicate with the living. The fate of the dead is once again in the hands of the living and Lady Mary is released from her torment only when her niece forgives her.
In 'The Library Window' the protagonist is fascinated by a mysterious window in her aunts' house. It is uncertain if the narrator is seeing through something or whether it is part of her own psyche reflecting back her own isolation and loneliness. The girl sees a man in the window and is angry when the others, as if by choice, do not see him. Just as Oliphant blurs the boundaries between night and day, so she merges the worlds of the living and the dead, the seen and unseen, reality and fantasy. The story could be read as a supernatural or a psychological experience. The pivotal character in these stories can always see what the others cannot, having an insight into a reality beyond that which is conventionally accepted.
Primary Fiction (selected) – Margaret Oliphant produced over 100 novels and 30 works of nonfiction
Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland (1849)
Caleb Field (1851)
Katie Stewart (1853)
The Rector (1863)
The Doctor's Family (1863)
The Perpetual Curate (1864)
Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Phoebe Junior: A Last Chronicle of Carlingford (1876)
A Beleagured City (1879)
The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant By Margaret Oliphant, ed. by Elisabeth Jay
Calder, Jenni, introduction to A Beleaguered City And Other Tales Of The Seen And The Unseen (2000)
Clarke, John Stock, Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897): A Bibliography (1986)
Colby, Vineta and Robert Colby, The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place (1966)
Jay, Elisabeth, "Freed by Necessity, Trapped by the Market: The Editing of Oliphant's Autobiography," Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive ed. by D. J. Trela (1995)
Jay, Elisabeth, Mrs. Oliphant: 'A Fiction to Herself': A Literary Life (1995)
Rubik, Magarete, The Novels of Mrs. Oliphant: A Subversive View of Traditional Themes (1994)
Williams, Merryn, Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography (1986)