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.’

She was not encouraged to think of herself as a literary celebrity. As a young woman, she wrote her novels on the sitting-room table at which her mother sewed: her family were proud of her early success, but would, she said, have felt ‘almost humiliated’ had they thought her composition required any ‘artificial aids’, such as silence or seclusion. Later, when a growing family made solitude impossible, she wrote in the small hours: friends reported that when the household was rising, her candles were still burning. Encounters with grandees were not, on the whole, a success. Tennyson snubbed her; Sir Charles Dilke, to whom she was introduced as a rising writer, ‘began at once to speak of his books and of his publishers, as if he and riot I were the literary person’. Produced at literary parties, she failed to sparkle, making for the corners of rooms, where an elderly clergyman once complimented her ‘by saying he did not like literary ladies – a sort of thing people are rather disposed to say to me’. She is extremely funny and very informative about such gatherings, detailing the fashion for staring which was favoured by Mrs Browning and other members of ‘the intense school’, and dramatising her own dismay at musical evenings of the kind she described in her novels: ‘My mind wanders through andantes and adagios, gaping, longing to understand. Will no one tell me what it means?’ She is both modest and intimate: it is difficult to imagine George Eliot recalling a social gaffe and admitting to going ‘hot all over’.

The vivacity of Mrs Oliphant’s Autobiography is a matter not merely of anecdote but of meticulous candour. She considered that her life had been ‘laborious’, made up of ‘incessant work, incessant anxiety’: she did not think of it as unhappy. She had, she said, ‘a spirit almost criminally elastic’. The circumstances of that life, and its literary products, are rehearsed in Merryn Williams’s Critical Biography with more speed than succinctness. Her book is presented as ‘the first full biography’ of its subject: in attempting to re-establish Mrs Oliphant’s reputation as a writer, it has as a somewhat lowering critical aim that of separating ‘the chaff from the grain’; a depressing series of asterisks in the bibliography alerts the reader to books that are ‘good, or at least interesting’. Mrs Oliphant’s abundant – oliphantine – production presents a problem for the most winnowing of biographers, and Merryn Williams is frequently reduced to providing a string of plot summaries accompanied by skimpy critical annotation. The Autobiography leaves little for her to do in the way of evoking personality other than follow its narrative, testifying to strength of character. What Merryn Williams has done is to construct – from the disordered and gappy chronology of the Autobiography and from recently released family papers – a coherent sequence of harsh events. She documents the hardships of Mrs Oliphant’s marriage – the collapse of her husband’s finances and the deaths of three children in infancy. She reports on the visit to Rome during which a son was born and her husband died, and on a second visit in the course of which an 11-year-old daughter died of gastric fever. Her narrative is busy, at times bewilderingly so, with rapid sketches of friendships and of jaunts – to Jerusalem, to the Riviera, to Switzerland. It is chiefly an account of a resilient battle against a steady accumulation of responsibilities and grief.

The most arresting parts of this biography concern the men in Mrs Oliphant’s life. All those closest to her were unsatisfactory. One of her brothers, a Presbyterian minister, was dismissed by his flock for drunkenness, and retired to the family sofa in his thirties, to read novels and smoke. He was set to making fair copies of Mrs Oliphant’s early books, some of which were attributed to him. Her other brother, broken by business failure and the death of his wife, also became a sofa-dweller, handing over to his sister the upkeep of himself and his children. Her relations with her husband, whom Merryn Williams describes as having ‘what is usually called a poetic temperament’, seem to have been tepid: his wife blamed him for not telling her he had TB, and soon discarded her widow’s cap as ‘an expensive luxury’. One commentator judged that his wife’s success made Francis Oliphant ‘an idle and aimless man’. Most strikingly, her two sons, lively and talented in their teens, dwindled into charmless wastrels. A.C. Benson, who was at school with them, charted the decline of Cyril Oliphant from a ‘vivid and sparkling Eton-boy’ to an ‘elderly and deprecating loafer’; his younger brother was experienced by visitors as ‘a mysterious weight’. Both of them remained dependent on their mother until they died in their early thirties: Mrs Oliphant was aware of the possibility that their enthusiasm for work might have been diminished by her own capacity for labour.

These males are of considerable interest to a reader of Mrs Oliphant’s novels, in which men are frequently seen to vacillate and to loll on sofas. Merryn Williams’s specific attempts to match the life to the work – The Quiet Heart shows that ‘the Oliphants’ marriage was in deep trouble’ – are not so helpful. Other advocates of Mrs Oliphant’s work have been more forceful. Q.D. Leavis saw in her an ‘exemplary woman of letters’ and the novelist who ‘bridged the gap between Jane Austen and George Eliot’. Among Mrs Oliphant’s books she singled out Miss Marjoribanks for particular approval, finding it a novel in which ‘every sentence is exactly right’ and the plotting ‘faultless’. Better still from her point of view, she found in it ‘a campaign against false Victorian values where women are concerned’.

Miss Marjoribanks is one of the Chronicles of Carlingford novels currently being reissued by Virago. It is a wonderful novel, of which the major triumph is the creation of a heroine in whom ability and absurdity are intricately mixed: whose ability is, in fact, dependent on having no sense of the absurd. Lucilla Marjoribanks is a person born to rule: her ambition is to transform the social life of Carlingford and become its queen. This is a position for which Miss Marjoribanks is shown to be amply equipped: ‘There are people who talk of themselves, and think of themselves, as it were, under protest, and with depreciation, not actually able to convince themselves that anybody cares; but Lucilla, for her part, had the calmest and most profound conviction that, when she discussed her own doings and plans and clevernesses, she was bringing forward the subject most interesting to her audience as well as to herself. Such a conviction is never without its fruits.’ Miss Marjoribanks’s further qualifications for her post cast light both on the provincial society in which she operates and on the characteristics of all potentates. She is never worryingly eccentric: she has ‘a great respect for religion, and as little to do with it as possible, which was a state of mind largely prevalent in Carlingford’. She is, however, not conventionally subordinate, showing a high regard for the usefulness of men, but a low opinion of their qualities: ‘ “Rings are no good to a gentleman. They never have nice hands, you know – though indeed when they have nice hands,” said Miss Marjoribanks reflectively, “it is a great deal worse, for they keep always thrusting them under your very eyes. It is curious why They should be so vain.” ’ She has a flair for innovation – her musical gatherings revolutionise the diaries of her neighbours – and is capable of bold strategic moves. Her attention to detail is masterly, or, rather, feminine: the drawing-room damasks are chosen to set off her complexion.

It is a skill of the novel that the irony with which Miss Marjoribanks’s most solemn announcements are treated does not conceal the fact that she is nearly always proved right. Q.D. Leavis thought that Miss Marjoribanks was always right, and that the point of the novel was to show an outstandingly capable woman operating in a pitifully restricted arena: Lucilla Marjoribanks should have been the ‘principal of a woman’s college’. No doubt, but it is also part of Mrs Oliphant’s skill to show that her heroine’s capacities impose limitations. Miss Marjoribanks is a novel which makes jokes about jokes – ‘I hate people that laugh at everything,’ signs one beleaguered woman – and a novel whose heroine is able to act effectively because she is single-minded. She can be single-minded because she has no sense of humour:

‘You girls have no business to get into corners. The corners are for the people that can talk. It is one of my principles always to flirt in the middle of the company,’ said Lucilla; and again, as happened so often, ignorant people laughed, and thought it a bon mot. But it is needless to inform the more intelligent persons who understand Miss Marjoribanks, that it was by no means a bon mot, but expressed Lucilla’s convictions with the utmost sincerity.

Mrs Leavis applauded this heroine’s ‘contempt for mere humour as an end in itself’. But a novel which has a joke on nearly every page cannot be said fully to justify her contempt.

In the course of writing Miss Marjoribanks, Mrs Oliphant complained: ‘It is the middle of a story that is always the trying bit.’ Her anxiety discovered – or perhaps produced – a flaw in the novel. At the point, almost exactly halfway through, at which a mystery sub-plot is introduced, the crispness and irony of the narrative waver, and as the complications of this sub-plot are unravelled, they waver again: couples are summarily married off; coincidences proliferate; characters are deemed to be concealed by curtains in crowded rooms or shrouded by dimmed lights at dinner tables. But Mrs Oliphant’s concern with what made a good piece of fiction is also observable in some of the novel’s best effects. She was free with her scorn for those heroines of contemporary fiction who ‘throw their glorious hair over the breast of any chance companion’: in Miss Marjoribanks she produced a heroine whose hair was bushy and who left nothing to chance. The novel of which she is the star refers to the work of other novelists – an archdeacon smiles ‘one of those disagreeable smiles which youthful writers describe by saying that his lip curled with scorn’ – and can be seen as commenting on the preoccupations of a writer of comic fiction. Lucilla Marjoribanks’s purpose in re-organising the lives of her neighbours is a traditionally novelistic purpose: that of ‘turning the chaotic elements of society ... into one grand unity’. Her procedures are those of a comic novelist: in orchestrating the evenings which become the high point of the Carlingford week she looks for instantly recognisable types – ‘any man who could flirt’ is one essential ingredient, though ‘a nice clergyman is almost as useful.’ Around her capers a character who practises the techniques of a comic-fiction writer, a gifted and compulsive mimic who ‘would take off the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Virgin Mary, if she had the oppportunity’ and who conveys convincing and economical portraits – of the woman who ‘made little eyebrows’ of surprise and alarm, of the Archdeacon lifting his finger to signal an orotundity, of Miss Marjoribanks’s grave bulletins about her filial piety. Few novelists would have had the nerve to create a figure who might seem to usurp her own skills. No hack of the kind derided by Hardy would have done so.

This novel about novels caught the attention of at least one other writer of fiction. Q.D. Leavis spied in Miss Marjoribanks the origins of Middlemarch, and used her discovery as a stick to beat George Eliot. In pointing to numerous similarities between the two novels, she hints at but does not unravel the hefty clue in their titles – a clue which becomes fully apparent when Miss Marjoribanks (pronounced ‘Marchbanks’) buys back her ancestral estate of Marchbank. A similar linguistic clue suggests that Miss Marjoribanks may also have been acknowledged by a very different writer. Throughout the 1920s E.F. Benson – whose brother had lamented the decline of Mrs Oliphant’s sons – published a series of very successful novels in which a childless woman, confident of her own superiority, and able to present her ambitions as inspired by lofty sentiments, takes control of the cultural life of a small provincial town. She puts considerable effort into establishing an individual style for her social gatherings – in which music plays an important part, and at which her power is exercised less in the direction of individual conquest than in that of manipulating her various antagonists and acolytes. Like Miss Marjoribanks, she is described as being a sovereign. Benson’s satire is broader than Mrs Oliphant’s; his heroine is simply a fake. But his Lucia is only a consonant away from Mrs Oliphant’s Lucilla.

Miss Marjoribanks will be published by Virago next year. Other novels in the Chronicles of Carlingford series which have already been reissued indicate the range of Mrs Oliphant’s work, as well as the unevenness with which she has often been taxed. The Perpetual Curate, for which she got a huge advance of £1500, and whose hero was ‘a favourite’, is a more emollient work than Miss Marjoribanks. It features an unequivocally admirable hero, and a heroine to whom the adjective ‘sweet’ is often applied; the curate’s aunt remarks that the eventual resolution of her nephew’s religious and romantic difficulties brings him to ‘an ending like a trashy novel’. This fierce aunt, who is declared by one of her sisters to be ‘not exactly what you would call – a female’, provides some of the liveliest moments in a novel which observes that a sense of humour is disruptive to ‘the unity of human sentiment’. The comparative absence of such disruptions from The Perpetual Curate’s debates on Tractarianism makes this a more coherent clerical study than the more ambitious Salem Chapel: it is also less exciting.

Salem Chapel first appeared in 1863, a year before The Perpetual Curate, and a year after Mrs Oliphant’s biography of Edward Irving, the charismatic preacher and suitor of Jane Carlyle. According to its author, it ‘made a kind of commotion, the utmost I have ever attained to’; according to Merryn Williams, it was Mrs Oliphant’s ‘most popular novel, though not for any good reason’. It is not difficult to find explanations for the success of Salem Chapel: its portrait of a Dissenting congregation and a conformist community is acute; it also features a melodrama which cornea near to bodice-ripping. But it is true that these elements are thrown together rather than mingled: the steady observation to which the flock of Salem are subjected sits oddly beside the hectic tangle of events which sets the Chapel’s minister charging across the country in the middle of the night, hammering at the doors of lodging-houses and mansions, and wringing his hands at the bedside of his fallen sister.

Mrs Oliphant seems to have experienced her difficulty with the middle of novels particularly early in Salem Chapel. The opening chapters promise an ironic study of a priggish young cleric’s dilemma. Arthur Vincent, the new minister of Salem, arrives in Carlingford flushed with social ambition and a sense of his ‘high vocation as a soldier of the Cross’. He finds a community who, having elected him, expect him to serve them on their terms: to flatter their elders and pay court to their dimpling daughters; to clasp hands which have just clutched sides of bacon; to devote more time to tea-meetings than to studying up his sermons. This community – with its good-heartedness and self-importance, its gorgeous evening-gowns and its substantial food – is vigorously presented and subtly investigated. In the ex-minister’s invalid daughter – the manufacturer of all gossip and the subject of none, whose eyes have ‘something of the shrill shining of a rainy sky’ – Mrs Oliphant created a figure of eerie brilliance. Yet a third of the way through the novel, as if seized by the notion that she is not being sufficiently exciting, she turns from the shrewd scrutiny which notes the butterman’s daughter perched ‘in an interesting manner’ by the piano, to a sensational rhetoric: teeth are ground, eyes are orbs, women are she-wolves.

In her excellent introduction to Salem Chapel, Penelope Fitzgerald suggests that the novel’s excursion into melodrama was occasioned in part by an anxiety about sales figures, but also by a wish to broaden the character of Arthur Vincent, and give prominence to his ministerial perplexities. Mrs Oliphant was not much concerned with debating theological niceties in Salem Chapel: ‘As a matter of fact,’ she wrote, ‘I knew nothing about chapels, but took the sentiment and a few details from our old church in Liverpool, which was Free Church of Scotland.’ The Dissenters of Salem are characterised by their social arrangements rather than by religious conviction, and protestations of belief are treated quizzically: Vincent makes an eloquent attack on episcopal wealth because he feels slighted by a lovely aristocrat; his converts are moved by the deliciousness of being ‘persecuted to their hearts’ desire’. But in dashing and gnashing his way across England, Vincent is brought up against indigence and desperation, and prompted to examine more closely his purpose as a minister: at the end of the novel he is not so much of a prig and more of a high-grade snob, who considers himself more accountable to God than to his own congregation. Less profitably for a minister, he has also entered the vocabulary of Mrs Oliphant’s supernatural tales: chaos glooms; the landscape is wild; it is often midnight; there, are no jokes.

It is no accident that Salem Chapel, which features spooks – Vincent’s sister is ‘ghastly white, with fixed dilated eyes’ – should have a man as its central character. In the supernatural tales it is generally women who haunt, men who are haunted. Mrs Oliphant’s experience led her to doubt men’s capacity for effective action – and their ability to think of more than one thing at a time. Vincent, bemused by his mother’s attention to domestic details at a moment of crisis, wonders: ‘Women’s weaker nature, that could mingle the common with the great; or women’s strength, that could endure all things – which was it?’ The heroines of Mrs Oliphant’s novels are capable women who show that these are not alternatives – and who display scant regard for the sentimental preoccupations of either men or women. Margaret Oliphant was extremely good at depicting passionate and neurotic women – one of the most memorable characters in Miss Marjoribanks is a sulky adventuress who is all feeling in a dress that rustles like tin. She reserved her approbation and her wit for sturdier creatures: for women such as Nettie in The Doctor’s Family, who looks after a gaggle of nephews and nieces and a lounging, smoking brother-in-law, while her sister discovers that tears ‘were a great resource’. ‘ “You have thought of dying a great many times,” said Nettie, “but it has never come to anything.” ’

[*] 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.