Doubling the Oliphant

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Mrs Oliphant: ‘A Fiction to Herself’ by Elisabeth Jay
    Oxford, 355 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 19 812875 4

Even by the standards of her contemporaries Margaret Oliphant’s productivity was phenomenal. As the author of 98 novels, she surpassed that other prodigious maker of fictions, Anthony Trollope, by roughly two to one – and this is not to mention her 25 works of non-fiction, 50 short stories and over three hundred contributions to periodicals. Though she usually prided herself on her robust health, it is little wonder that at the age of 65 she half-boasted to her publisher of how she had ‘worked a hole’ in her right forefinger ‘with the pen, I suppose!’ and could not get it to heal – ‘also from excessive use of that little implement’. In an obituary note written after she finally succumbed to colon cancer in 1897, Henry James paid characteristically equivocal tribute to this most prolific of women writers: ‘from no individual perhaps had the great contemporary flood received a more copious treatment.’ His obituary hovered between contempt for helpless female fecundity – what he unkindly termed Oliphant’s ‘uncontrolled flood of fiction’ – and genuine awe at the sheer scale of her achievement: ‘few writers of our time have been so organised for liberal, for – one may almost put it – heroic production.’ Even as James speculated on how ‘her remarkable life, and still more ... remarkable character’ might ‘lend itself to vivid portraiture’, he recognised how the very magnitude of her production would militate against the prospect of a biography. Of her criticism alone, he remarked: ‘She practised it, as she practised everything, on such an inordinate scale that her biographer, if there is to be one, will have no small task in the mere drafting of lists of her contributions.’

But more than the labour of list-making has discouraged would-be biographers. Exactly a half-century separated Oliphant’s first novel, a fictitious autobiography called Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland (1849), from the publication of her own fragmentary autobiography, expurgated and rearranged by her surviving dependants two years after her death. By the last decades of the century, Oliphant’s reputation had already undergone a significant decline, and the appearance of the Autobiography may well have hastened the process. Like Trollope’s similarly posthumous narrative, with its coolly businesslike account of his writing habits, Oliphant’s record was not calculated to enhance her image as an artist. When she set out in 1885 ‘to put a few autobiographical bits down before I die’, she justified the act, as she had so many moves in her career, on the grounds that no one else would do it for her – even as she dismissed the entire enterprise on the grounds that there was nothing significant to record. ‘I am in very little danger of having my life written,’ she observed.

No one belonging to me has energy enough to do it, or even to gather the fragments for someone else and that is all the better in this point of view – for what could be said of me? George Eliot and George Sand make me half inclined to cry over my poor little unappreciated self ... I would not buy their fame with their disadvantages, but I do feel very small, very obscure beside them, rather a failure all round, never securing any strong affection, and throughout my life, though I have had all the usual experiences of woman, never impressing anybody, – what a droll little complaint! – why should I? I acknowledge frankly that there is nothing in me – a fat, little, commonplace woman, rather tongue-tied – to impress any one.

Professions of failure need not be taken at face value, of course, and here as elsewhere Oliphant’s rhetoric of self-pity and self-criticism was far from straightforward. Even ‘commonplace’, Elisabeth Jay suggests in another context, may not have been altogether a term of abuse in the lexicon of this ‘fat, little, commonplace woman’. (Revealingly, she later described Tennyson’s appearance as ‘too emphatically that of a poet ... the fine frenzy, the careless picturesqueness, were almost too much.’) But from the standpoint of the biographer, the comparison with George Eliot is particularly telling: unlike Eliot’s, Jay wants to argue, Oliphant’s career cannot be assimilated to a standard myth of artistic progress. While the novelist who called herself ‘George Eliot’ emerged from the anonymous work of translating and reviewing as if from the hack-work chrysalis of the butterfly artist, Oliphant earned her first commission as a reviewer by her early success with fiction; and rather than abandon the more routine labour to concentrate on the art of the novel, continued to alternate between the two all her life, preferring, in her own homely idiom, to keep several pots boiling at once.

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