Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Penelope Fitzgerald convinces me to read Margaret Oliphant

So why not just plunge into Argentinean literature, if it's so great, which it seems to be?  The usual reason – too many books, or, really, too little focus.  Restlessness and curiosity and susceptibilty.  For example, I have to clear out some time for a novel or two or three by Margaret Oliphant.

Why?  Good question.  She’s Scottish, and I claim to be interested in the subject, although she didn’t write much about Scotland.  Frankly, though, I was happy to skip her, unless someone else insisted, or maybe just read her short Autobiography (1899).  She wrote, Penelope Fitzgerald tells me, “nearly one hundred novels,” plus stories, articles, travel books, and more.*  That’s not promising.

But then I read the rest of Penelope Fitzgerald’s essays on Oliphant, introductions to the Virago editions of four Oliphant novels.  Fitzgerald, reasonably, does not use her space to inform the reader of everything Oliphant does wrong.  She is making the best case she can.  That case is strong.

The four novels are The Rector, The Doctor’s Family, Salem Chapel, and The Perpetual Curate. The first three were all published in 1863 – not promising – and the last in 1864.  They are all part of the Carlingford series, about ministers and curates and so on in a small English city, very much like Trollope, except that Oliphant wanders further afield, into the working class neighborhoods, and even into the slums.  Fitzgerald argues that Oliphant’s art, at its best, consists of the sorts of "minor incidents that lead to major psychological insights" that I also associate with Trollope.

The Rector is the story of a new bookish minister who “[f]or the last fifteen years… has been immured in the college of All Souls, preparing an edition of Sophocles” (47).  In other words, he’s a bad minister, and is about to learn just how bad.  The climax of the novel is at the bedside of a dying woman.  The rector, called away from a party, does not have his prayer book, and “is at a loss for a prayer.”  He is helpless in the face of the woman’s need, and he understands that he probably always will be.  This seems pretty sharp.  I know, it’s just one scene, but still.

Fitzgerald makes The Perpetual Curate sound even more interesting.  Here, we have the priest who is too good, who ministers in other people’s districts and can’t keep his views to himself (he’s “viewy”), even when it means he’ll always be too poor to marry.  A good priest, but not a saint – Fitzgerald singles out a scene where he “has to restrain himself from whacking his aunt’s horrible dog” (67).

Fitzgerald suggests that Oliphant is actually at her best in her shorter work.  She argues that the three-volume novel did not suit Oliphant well, leading to plenty and padding and contrivances and plottiness that were far from her strength, which was exactly my suspicion.  But any reader of Trollope, or second-tier Dickens, for that matter, has hacked through plenty of underbrush to get to the good stuff.  Fitzgerald convinced me. I need to sharpen my machete and read some Margaret Oliphant.

*Penelope Fitzgerald, “The Mystery of Mrs Oliphant,” in A House of Air: Selected Writings, Flamingo, 2003, p. 69.  All quotations are from this cornucopia of a book. And I don't want to omit Rohan Maitzen's omnibus reference post on Oliphant.  Maitzen got me curious enough about Oliphant to read the Fitzgerald essays.


  1. I advise you to start with "Miss Marjoriebanks" (my favorite Oliphant) or "Phoebe Junior" the last of the Chronicles of Carlingford.

  2. After coming very close to disparaging her at the beginning of the Scottish challenge you are actually going to give her a try? Very good and brave of you especially since there is the possibility you might love her. It might be a remote possibility but you never know :)

  3. Stefanie - Exactly. This is a crow-eating post. I seasoned the crow with spicy barbecue sauce. It's delicious!

    A. Nonymous - Many thanks. Reasons?

  4. I'm looking forward to reading your posts on her! I haven't read much of her short fiction but I think her Autobiography is something quite unusual and special, and I also really admire her short story "A Story of a Wedding Tour," which is exceptionally sharp. She's a fine reviewer, too. I have The Perpetual Curate on my Scottish challenge list ... soon! But (among other reading) I've begun on The Antiquary and should probably persist with that before I forget who everybody is.

  5. I don't have the book at hand to share any specific examples with you, Amateur Reader, but Winifred Hughes' The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (Princeton, out of print) has a number of howlers from Mrs. Oliphant re: the bad news she saw as the sensation novel. Might be worth a look should you need some comic relief during this project of yours!

  6. Rohan - I've just read the Oliphant essay in your book, more of which all this week. Warn the publisher! They'll need a new printing!

    I'll look at the Hughes book, too, thanks. But, Richard - was she wrong?

    PS to Rohan - you won't forget who the Antiquary characters are, at least not the important ones. As for the rest, it won't matter.

  7. more of which all this week

    That's excellent--thanks! It's an (inevitably) eclectic collection; I'm sure you'll find plenty of quirky things to remark. I'll be really interested to see what stands out to fresh eyes (I can only hope it's not typos and shocking confusions in the notes).

  8. Was Oliphant wrong? Depends on whether or not believe that novels like The Woman in White led to the breakdown of all moral standards in the fabric of English society!