I’ll slip away from Carlingford today. Fay of Historical / Present has been filling me in on the hostility of some early feminist critics towards Margaret Oliphant. It’s all sort of hilarious. Oliphant’s feminist credentials were not in order. She did not support women’s suffrage consistently and was shocked by Jude the Obscure and wore silk.*
This sort of thing is highly useful, because it gives later scholars something to do. By using the advanced critical technique of Actually Reading Oliphant’s Work, or AROW, scholars have discovered that Oliphant might have had something interesting to say about women, and might havedone so in aesthetically interesting ways. Although I am not a scholar, and risk misapplying the AROW technique, I discovered much the same thing.
Rohan Maitzen recommended I read the Oliphant short story “A Story of a Wedding Tour”**. A pretty orphan, “young , and shy, and strange,” trained to be a governess, is lucky enough to attract a wealthy husband. Or maybe, she discovers on her French honeymoon, not all that lucky. Accidentally separated from her husband due to confusion over a train schedule, she is surprised at her sense of relief, or happiness, or even bliss. And then:
She spread them all out, and counted them from right to left, and again from left to right. Nine ten-pound notes, twelve and a-half French napoleons – or louis, as people call them nowadays – making a hundred pounds. A hundred pounds is a big sum in the eyes of a girl. It may not be much to you and me, who knows that it means only ten time ten pounds, and that ten pounds goes like the wind as soon as you begin to spend it. But to Janey! Why, she could live upon a hundred pounds for – certainly for two years; for two long delightful years, with nobody to trouble her, nobody to scold, nobody to interfere. Something mounted to her head like the fumes of wine. (431)
I’ve omitted, so far, how explicit the story is about sex, about the husband’s lust and Janey’s repulsion, and the consequences of sex. Janey runs off, finds a hiding place in a Mediterranean French town, bears and raises her son, and lives. Anything here a feminist critic might find interesting?
How about an Amateur Reader? To return to the passage about the money: the doubled counting is a sharp touch, just how a sensible woman like Janey would confirm this unbelievable change. The “fumes of wine” invoke the honeymoon, even if most of the wine was imbibed by her husband. The mock world-weariness of the authorial intrusion is funny, the "you and me" especially.
With the help of AROW, the pleasures and insights of Margaret Oliphant seem considerable.
I read “A Story of a Wedding Tour” in Nineteenth-century Short Stories by Women: A Routledge Anthology, ed. Harriet Devine Jump, Routledge, 1998.
* See the suitably irritated Elizabeth Langland, “Women’s writing and the domestic sphere,” in Women and Literature in Britain 1800-1900, ed. Joanne Shattock, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 137.
** I’m not sure of the date of publication. Late 19th century, I think, long after the Carlingford books.