Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Something mounted to her head like the fumes of wine - Margaret Oliphant, anti-feminist

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.


  1. It's the explicitness of the story that has always struck me, too. I think it's quite remarkable in its emphasis on the drive for both economic and sexual liberation.

    As for her feminism (or not), I think for or against often doesn't really work well in a 19thC context, where being in favor of improving the condition of women might not lead to making liberal feminist / progressive claims of quite the kind we usually think we mean by the term. That said, I have taught two of her essays, "The Condition of Woman" and "The Grievances of Woman"--one is earlier, the other later, and the later one is much more sympathetic to demands for greater justice for women than the earlier one. This story is quite late, I think--so perhaps her views had evolved. (Both are in the great Broadview anthology "Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors," edited by Susan Hamilton.)

    I forget if you've already read her Autobiography. I don't know another book quite like it for the blend of homespun common sense, poor-little-me grievances, and sheer unbearable poignancy.

  2. question-I would love to read this story-I am having trouble finding it on line-does anyone know which of her collections it might have appeared has a lot of her work and it is probably in one of the books on line there-thanks-

  3. The AROW technique -- now there's something I could have used in graduate school! Darn. I'm sure you've applied it quite well here.

  4. Love th AROW technique! It is serving you well. And I can see how early feminists might not have liked her, wearing silk and being inconsistent in one's beliefs is scandalous!

  5. If I refrain from mockery, the Gilbert and Gubar-era rejection of Oliphant is actually insructive. It means that, when that generation of scholars was clearing the brush, searching for overlooked women authors, Oliphant was so little or so badly read that they were not able to describe her accurately - they obviously did not know that "A Story of a Wedding Tour" existed, or what interesting things The Doctor's Family, to pick an example I've read, had to say about domesticity and family relations.

    Later application of the Actually Reading Oliphant method has now taken care of that problem, although work seems to be ongoing. She sure wrote a lot.

    Rohan - thanks for the book recommendation, the Broadview anthology. The Autobiography is on my list, too. Researching (or "researching") this post, I read some quotes from The Autobiography, some of which really did sound like offputting whining.

    mel, I checked Gutenberg. This story isn't there, just some of Oliphant's ghost stories. I tell you, this one was hard enough to find in a book! I needed a university library.

  6. In case this is any use, there's yet another useful Broadview anthology that includes this story: it's just called "19th-Century Stories by Women" and it has all kinds of goodies including Louise May Alcott's "A Whisper in the Dark," M E Braddon's vampire story "Good Lady Ducayne," and two great Elizabeth Gaskell stories. It is edited by Glennis Stephenson.

  7. That anthology looks good, too. Cut it out! At keast I have a head start on this one - I've read about a third of it.

  8. By using the advanced critical technique of Actually Reading Oliphant’s Work, or AROW

    Nicely done, though I prefer the RTFT method myself (where the second T stands for Text). Yours is friendlier!

  9. AROW is friendly, but it needs to be generalized.

    I'm amazed, sometimes, at how little Actual Reading of any given text is actually being done. I try to read the actual book sitting in front of me. I try.