Monday, June 21, 2010

Margaret Oliphant wins a convert

All right, all right.  My resistance is broken.  Penelope Fitzgerald was right.  Margaret Oliphant was a good writer.  Exactly how good is the question I can’t quite escape, but I’m going to set that aside, since I’ve now read merely one (plus two stories) of her “nearly a hundred” novels.  The short novel, The Doctor’s Family, and the stories, The Executor and The Rector, all published in 1861, are good.

Maybe I have read three novels.  The Executor and The Rector are each around thirty pages long, with four chapters.  They feel more like tiny novels than short stories.  What do I mean?  Chapter I begins

‘The woman was certainly mad,’ said John Brown.

We find ourselves in a parlor full of mourners, apparently at the reading of a will.  An older woman in “new mourning, poor soul,” is devastated, since, as her daughter says “we thought we were to have it.”  The deceased’s servant, “a tall woman, thin and dry,” is blamed.  And so on.

What impresses me here is the parsimony of information, the way Oliphant gives us nothing more than what is necessary.  We have inferred that John Brown is an attorney before the fact is mentioned on page 3, and that the document is a will before it is identified as such on page 4.  Oliphant is willing to leave the reader just a little off balance.  At the end of the chapter, pages 8 and 9, she finally tells us exactly what is in the will, but not until then.  It’s all very clever, skillful.  At this point, the editor of the 1986 Oxford World’s Classics edition (The Doctor's Family and Other Stories) tells me, Oliphant "had already written over twenty [!] novels, none of them especially good" (ix). She had clearly learned something along the way.

The second chapter is even more interesting.  We spend a few pages with the poor relatives, then a bit with the old servant, then we move to the house of a gloomy young doctor (protagonist, a few months later, of The Doctor’s Family), and finally spend three pages with the attorney.  When I said The Executor feels like a miniature novel, this is what I meant, time spent in the heads of a number of characters, major or minor, and a slice of the town of Carlingford made visible, however briefly.

The story reminds me of Anthony Trollope, of The Warden (1855), in that the real action lies in a professional crisis of conscience that is invisible to outsiders and poorly understood by the central figure (Trollope’s warden, Oliphant’s attorney) himself, but is no less real for that.  Oliphant’s art, like Trollope’s, seems to lie in these small insights teased out from small incidents, some of which turn out to be not so small.  Her prose resembles Trollope’s as well – it’s always good enough, but rarely too much better.  The spine seldom shivers.  Let’s try a passage:

Nancy [the servant] had locked the house-door, which, like an innocent almost rural door as it was, opened from without.  She was upstairs, very busy in a most congenial occupation – turning out the old lady’s wardrobe, and investigating the old stores of lace and fur and jewellery.  She knew them pretty well by heart before; but now that according to her idea, they were her own, everything naturally acquired a new value.  She had laid them out in little heaps, each by itself, on the dressing-table; a faintly-glimmering row of old rings and brooches, most of them entirely valueless, though Nancy was not aware of that…  With these delightful accumulations all round her, Nancy was happy.  She had entered, as she supposed, upon an easier and more important life. (18)

The innocent door; the pointless sorting – rings in one pile, lace in another; sly, well-chosen words like “congenial” and “important” and, my favorite, “naturally” – there’s a lot to like here.  It’s well-written, smart, good. How good?


  1. I believe Oliphant was considered an anti-feminisit by early feminist scholars, creating an obstacle to a a wider audience for her work.

    I came to her after reading an essay in The New Nineteenth Century: Feminist Readings of Underread Victorian Fiction, Barbara Leah Harman and Susan Meyer, editors. When you consider her fiction, as opposed to her cultural commentary, she looks like a woman who understood the need for change in the lives of Victorian women, like an advocate for women's self-determination.

    A feminist in attitude and inclination, if not in analysis and ideology. And she can be so very funny. Often hilarious.

    Miss Marjoribanks awaits you. What a treat you have in store.

  2. "My resistance is broken": humility is the first requirement of a true reader.

  3. I think you're right to pair her with Trollope. I rank her as about as good as Trollope. I don't think it's at all fair that she is largely out of print, at least in America, while Trollope is almost entirely in print.

    They were both human word processors. I mean that in a good way. I quite like both of them.

    Do read Miss Majoribanks next. Many of Mrs. Oliphant's fans consider it her best. I enjoyed it myself.

  4. The funny thing, Fay - funny to me - is that my suspicion of Oliphant was based on the assumption that she had been pumped up by feminist critics. I only saw people talk about feminism and social criticism, and not about style or aesthetics.

    The enthusiasm for Miss Marjoribanks is catching, but I think I'm reading The Perpetual Curate next, with Prof. Novel Readings, as a Scottish Challenge book.

    I may write a bit more about Oliphant and Trollope. Lining her up with Trollope is, for me, only a mild compliment. I'll see if I can say why.

  5. Found The New Nineteenth Century.

    "To some traditionalists, the quality of Oliphant's work is questionable; to some feminists her political conservatism is an insuperable barrier."

    She wrote a brutal review of Hardy's Jude the Obscure, calling the book a product of "grossness, indecency, and horror." She did not approve of his depiction of marriage and sexuality. Hardy fired back, calling her "propriety and primness incarnate." That reputation, well-earned in the case of this review, followed her for years following her death.

    Feminist editors of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) did not mention O. in their book. Joseph H. O'Mealy, author of this essay, suggests that she was marginalized by feminists "because her novels do not question or challenge the prevailing patriarchy, nor does she treat women characters as the repressed 'other.'"

    Early on, she opposed votes for women, although later she seems to have changed her mind. Probably the best evidence of her solid conventionality is her status as Queen Victoria's favorite novelist.

  6. Fay, thanks so much for all of this. You will see that you heavily influenced today's post. (All errors are the author's!)

    The simple act of reading Oliphant would have cleared up some of these misunderstandings.

    Really, if you were to follow some critics to their logical conclusion, you should just read the biographies of writers and skip their actual books.

  7. I had a suspicion you might end up a convert even though I have not read Oliphant but heard only vague "she's good" endorsements. I know I always like to be pleasantly surprised when I am sure I am not going to like a book or author.