Criminal Elastic

Susannah Clapp

  • Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography by Merryn Williams
    Macmillan, 217 pp, £27.50, October 1986, ISBN 0 333 37647 1
  • Chronicles of Carlingford: The Perpetual Curate by Mrs Oliphant
    Virago, 540 pp, £4.50, February 1987, ISBN 0 86068 786 4
  • Chronicles of Carlingford: Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
    Virago, 461 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 86068 723 6
  • Chronicles of Carlingford: The Rector by Mrs Oliphant
    Virago, 192 pp, £3.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 86068 728 7

‘I too work hard, Mrs Oliphant,’ said Queen Victoria to the Scottish novelist. Mrs Oliphant was famous for her productivity. She published biographies of Edward Irving and the Comte de Montalembert, a literary history of England and more than sixty fat novels.[*] From the mid-1850s until her death in 1897 she contributed half a dozen essays a year to Blackwood’s Magazine, delivering on Bunsen, Savonarola, Queen Anne, Marco Polo and Jesus Christ. Her fluency brought her compliments on her ‘industry’ in which she detected ‘a delightful superiority’: she was a connoisseur of condescensions. It also brought her undisguised insults. Stung by Mrs Oliphant’s review of Jude the Obscure, Hardy exclaimed: ‘That a woman who purely for money’s sake has for the last thirty years flooded the magazines and starved out scores of better workers, should try to write down rival novelists whose books sell better than her own, caps all the shamelessness of Arabella, to my mind.’

There was not much of the hussy in Margaret Oliphant, who was shy, sharp-witted and buck-toothed; according to Henry James, her physiognomy was ‘that of a person whose eggs are not all in one basket’. The daughter of a Midlothian clerk, she published her first novel when she was 21, and married her cousin – a designer of stained glass – three years later; by the time she was 31 she was widowed with three children and in debt. She wrote because she liked writing, which ‘came natural’ to her; she also wrote because she had to support her children and an increasing band of dependent relatives. This last motive for producing books has worried almost everyone who has discussed Mrs Oliphant’s writing. Virginia Woolf cited her as an example of a woman who had ‘prostituted her culture’ in order to earn her living; an Edinburgh Reviewer pronounced that she had ‘deliberately reduced herself ... to a manufacturer of saleable literature’, and had no right to do so.

It also worried Margaret Oliphant, who wondered if she would have done better had she been kept, like George Eliot, in a ‘mental greenhouse’. She thought of George Eliot with some dolefulness, as of a writer with whom no one else would consider her comparable. She also thought of her with acerbity, as of an author ‘always on duty’, and ‘a dull woman with a great genius distinct from herself’. Mrs Oliphant’s genius was very much bound up with being Mrs Oliphant. She was less solemn than her critics about her obligation to the world of letters; she was perfectly serious about what she owed herself. She made her difficulties and her doubts into her subject, writing novels in which resourceful women put to one side the prospect of a more glamorous status in order to do their duty. For her heroines, as for Mrs Oliphant, duty means looking after families and running households. The element of sacrifice in doing so is not such as to reduce them to limp rags, or to thinking of themselves principally as ‘carers’: they take charge because they are the most competent people around, and prove their capacities in doing so. Duty for these women approximates to what in men is called a sense of honour. They prosecute it with vigour.

One of the exhilarating aspects of Mrs Oliphant’s Autobiography is the zest with which she writes about her work. ‘I always took pleasure in a little bit of fine writing (afterwards called in the family language a “trot”) ... when I got moved by my subject, and began to feel my heart beat, and perhaps a little water in my eyes ... I have always had my sing-song, guided by no sort of law, but by my ear, which was in its way fastidious to the cadence and measure that pleased me.’ Fine writing in the sense of overworked elegance is not something that Mrs Oliphant could normally be accused of practising: her shortcomings as a novelist have more to do with being slapdash. Her gift was for an effortlessly adroit turn of phrase: J.M. Barrie said that she often appeared ‘amused and surprised to hear what she had just said’, and wit seemed simply to slip out of her when writing. She registers this with characteristic immediacy in her Autobiography: ‘I wrote as I read, with much the same sort of feeling. It seems to me that this is rather an original way of putting it (to disclose the privatest thought in my mind), and this gives me an absurd little sense of pleasure.’

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[*] Virago will publish Miss Marjoribanks next year, and Phoebe Junior in 1989. Both these novels are in the Chronicles of Carlingford series. Hester is published by Virago at £3.95, Selected Short Stories of the Supernatural, edited by Margaret Gray, by Scottish Academic Press at £8.50, and Kirsteen by Dent in an Everyman paperback at £2.95. Mrs Oliphant’s Autobiography is out of print.