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.

Unlike most of the major Victorian women novelists, with the exception of Elizabeth Gaskell, Oliphant was also a mother, and one who professed in her Autobiography that ‘at my most ambitious of times I would rather my children had remembered me as their mother than in any other way.’ When her husband died after seven years of marriage, she became the sole breadwinner of a family that included not only her own three surviving children but, at various periods, her two feckless brothers, a nephew and two nieces. Though she wondered if she would have done better had she been ‘kept’, like George Eliot, ‘in a mental greenhouse and taken care of’, Oliphant felt that she could not afford to aim at anything but to make as much money as possible. With typical honesty, she also acknowledged that ‘it was much more congenial to me to drive on and keep everything going, with a certain scorn of the increased work, and metaphorical toss of my head, as if it mattered! than it ever would have been to labour with an artist’s fervour and concentration to produce a masterpiece.’

This lifelong practice of divided attentions and alternating rhythms seems to Jay typical of many women’s lives – more typical, certainly, than the paradigmatic narrative associated with George Eliot. On the view that the very interruptions and fragments of the personal record testify to such rhythms, Jay’s edition of Oliphant’s Autobiography (1990) chose to restore the manuscript rather than reproduce the version first published in the 19th century. In part because she does not wish to impose a ‘neat line of linear development’ on Oliphant’s career, and in part, as she sensibly observes, because the sheer volume of her subject’s work would have made a chronological account of life-and-works ‘cluttered and confusing’, Jay’s new study also presents itself as something of an experiment in form. A brief opening section rehearses the principal facts of Oliphant’s history from several different angles: first summarising the major events of the life in chronological sequence, then examining the ‘fiction of herself’ as Oliphant constructed it in the Autobiography and elsewhere, and finally looking at alternative views of the woman as she appeared to a number of her contemporaries, including rather harsh portraits of suspiciously Oliphant-like writers in Trollope and James. If neither Lady Carbury in The Way We Live Now (1873) nor Mrs Stormer in ‘Greville Fane’ (1892) offers an exact resemblance, the combination of needy widowhood, caddishly indolent sons and relentless word-spinning – Mrs Stormer ‘could invent stories by the yard, but couldn’t write a page of English’ – makes both satires seem uncomfortably pointed. Though Jay describes her book as a ‘A Literary Life’, she organises the bulk of her study not by the sequence of events from birth to death but by the variety of her subject’s intellectual and professional concerns, her attitudes towards the roles of men and women, her religious speculations and her career as a woman of letters.

One of the striking facts about that career was Oliphant’s professional management of her name. Feminist critics have made much in recent years of the pressures that compelled women writers to take cover in anonymity or pseudonyms. But in this regard, too, Jay contends, the example of George Eliot (or Charlotte Brontë) is misleading. Though Oliphant did begin by conventionally screening her identity – first as the fictional autobiographer and then as the author of Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland – she had no sooner moved, after only a few years, to the prestigious firm of Blackwoods than she was informing her new publishers that she would rather appear on the title-page under her own initials. By that time, significantly, the woman born Margaret Oliphant Wilson had already succeeded in expanding her M.O.W. into M.O.W.O. Having married her maternal cousin, Frank Oliphant, before she ever laid claim to her work, the novelist managed to efface her maiden name and to emerge in print with her mother’s. Since that mother had a fierce conviction of the aristocratic superiority of her family to her husband’s, doubling the ‘Oliphant’ was no small achievement. Equally to the point, it was the mother who had acted as the principal agent of her daughter’s career. An avid reader and storyteller, whose ‘wonderful gift of narrative’ and ‘dangerous facility of sarcasm’ later reminded the novelist of Jane Carlyle, the elder Margaret Oliphant Wilson took the daughter she had educated to Edinburgh, where she introduced her to prominent members of its literary set and even managed to arrange for an extended visit to an influential contributor to Blackwood’s. The novelist responded to her mother’s training and came out as an Oliphant, but she experimented with various versions of her name before settling on the tag by which she chose to be identified after the death of her husband – the ‘Mrs Oliphant’ that appears on the title-page of the great bulk of her novels.

It is still ‘Mrs Oliphant’ who figures in the present biography, though Jay knows that some readers would have thought a simple ‘Oliphant’ more in accord with the dignity of the writer. She justifies her choice partly by citing another critic’s account of why he decided to write of ‘Virginia Woolf’ rather than ‘Woolf’, but his professed surprise ‘that feminist critics should be willing to reduce her to her husband’s name in this way’ seems peculiarly beside the point for Oliphant, who appears to have identified her married name so much more intensely with her mother than with her husband. Jay seems on more defensible grounds when she contends that ‘Mrs Oliphant’ functioned as something of a trademark for the novelist, a valuable commodity that she soon learned to manipulate. Worried about flooding her own market, the established writer occasionally sought anonymity, not as a cover for authorial modesty but as a strategy for regulating sales. In 1870, for instance, she advised Blackwood not to attach her name to one novel because she feared lest it compete with another ‘Mrs Oliphant’ about to appear from a different publisher. (Blackwood preferred to advertise her identity as his author.) The decision to allow her brother Willie to take credit for four early novels, Jay suggests, had as much to do with an effort of quality control over the writing attached to her name as with an impulse of generosity toward that failed clergyman and alcoholic.

Readers familiar with Oliphant’s splendidly acerbic comedy, Miss Marjoribanks (1866), will recognise how very self-conscious she was about the business of naming – as well as, for that matter, the satisfactory uses to which a strong-minded woman might put a marriageable cousin of the other sex. Under the transparent fiction of sacrificing herself in order to be ‘a comfort to dear papa’, the energetic and determined Lucilla Marjoribanks returns to the home of her widowed father, where she establishes her ‘enlightened despotism’ over Carlingford society. Lucilla has studied political economy at school, as she never tires of explaining, and in the drawing-rooms of Carlingford she discovers the field in which to exercise all her skills of command and diplomacy. If the novel’s mode is unquestionably mock-heroic (Jay aptly compares it to The Rape of the Lock), the sustained irony with which Oliphant treats her heroine co-exists with an exuberant delight in Lucilla’s ‘own consciousness of superior Power’. Having successfully fulfilled her announced intention of avoiding ‘that sort of thing’ for ten years, Miss Marjoribanks finally agrees to marry in the way least calculated to alter anything at all. In her long-devoted, if rather hapless, cousin Tom, she chooses ‘not a man of original mind, nor one who would be likely to take a bold initiative’, as the narrator observes, but one with ‘a perfect genius for carrying out a suggestion’ – which under the circumstances ‘made his character as near perfect as humanity permits’. As her future husband, of course, Tom Marjoribanks also has the great virtue of assuring that Lucilla Marjoribanks need never change her name. ‘If there could be any name that would have suited her better, or is surrounded by more touching associations,’ remarks the narrator in closing, ‘we leave it to her other friends to find out.’

Jay thinks that Oliphant worried about the dangerously unfeminine energies of her heroine and that Miss Marjoribanks ends by hinting at Tom’s future career in Parliament in order to remove him from Lucilla’s ‘proper sphere of influence’. But this is to overlook the fact that Lucilla has already managed to get one potential suitor returned for Carlingford and that the vision of another ‘triumphant election at the end’ is wholly, and characteristically, the heroine’s. Though Lucilla says she would like the vote, her creator opposed the ‘mad notion of the franchise for women’. And as Lucilla herself acknowledges, ‘if we were going in for that sort of thing, I don’t know what there would be left for the gentlemen to do.’ Oliphant was no feminist reformer – in large part, one can’t help feeling, because she was thoroughly convinced that women were already the superior sex. Though her heroines often exhibit a striking capacity for self-sacrifice, they bear little resemblance to the refined beings customarily invoked by the domestic angelology of the period. Oliphant’s women are simply smarter, stronger and in every important sense more capable than her men – whose chief function, as Jay remarks, is to provide ‘the necessary raw material’ on which the superior sex may exercise its moral faculties. While the young and intrepid heroine of The Doctor’s Family (1861) single-handedly manages to keep his household from ruin, her indolent brother-in-law takes refuge in his room upstairs, where he ‘stretched his slovenly limbs on his sofa’, drugged himself with ‘the heavy fumes of his pipe’ and ‘buried his confused faculties in his old novel’. Not all Oliphant’s masculine specimens are as miserable as this, but even the best of them tend to be more or less dependent on the energy and practical intelligence of their women. No wonder that she resolutely resisted the current fashion of maiming the hero in order to humble him – as Charlotte Brontë’s Rochester was blinded – for the heroine: ‘in her view,’ as Jay puts it, ‘men already carried a spiritual handicap by virtue of their gender.’

Compared to the better known work of her contemporaries, in fact, Oliphant’s courtship piotscan be surprisingly unconventional. Phoebe Junior (1876) ends in marriage, but only after ironically reversing the usual opposition between the romantic choice and the mercenary one: rather than accept the poor but sensitive hero, Phoebe prefers an amiable dolt, whose vast wealth and social position will afford her the possibility of a ‘Career’. ‘Yes,’ she thinks as she contemplates accepting him, ‘she could put him into Parliament, and keep him there’; and the novel closes by mischievously suggesting that if Parliament is in session, the reader ‘may have had the luck to read a speech in the morning paper of Phoebe’s composition’. Another novel of the same year, The Curate in Charge, explicitly protests against the marriage plot, ‘that tour de force which is always to be thought of in every young woman’s story’. Though all the usual signs point to the heroine’s acceptance of her suitor’s offer, the novel simply breaks off with the issue suspended.

Reading Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë in 1864, Oliphant thought of herself as taking ‘perhaps more a man’s view of mortal affairs, – to feel that the love between men and women, the marrying and the giving in marriage, occupy in fact so small a portion of either existence or thought’. By the time of Hester (1883) and still more of Kirsteen (1890), something like ‘a man’s view of mortal affairs’ radically alters the plot. Though Hester offers its heroine three suitors and she passionately falls in love with one, at the novel’s climax Hester chooses not her lover but honour and the family bank. The deepest emotional currents of this novel, in fact, have nothing to do with ‘the marrying and the giving in marriage’ but with the mutual obsession, at once hostile and loving, of two women and with their shared yearning for serious work. Like her Aunt Catherine, who had herself once saved the bank from ruin, Hester would have made ‘an excellent man of business’. Oliphant may end by ironically returning her heroine to the two remaining suitors, but her concluding question quietly sends up more than a century of English narrative: ‘What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice?’

For a reader of Oliphant’s life, however, it is Hester’s aunt whose situation resonates most painfully. Unmarried and childless, the wealthy and cynical Catherine has invested all her love and faith in a young male relative she has informally adopted and made chief partner in the bank, only to be betrayed by him both financially and emotionally at the close of the narrative. First obsessed with the fear of losing him, then horrified to discover that he has proved unworthy of her love, Catherine Vernon offers a disquieting commentary on Oliphant’s own history as a mother. Having lost three children in infancy and her only surviving daughter, Maggie (yet another Margaret Oliphant), at the age of 11, the novelist obsessively devoted herself to making gentlemen of her two remaining sons – who repaid her by grimly confirming the family pattern of masculine weakness and dependency. Despite their education at Eton and Balliol (conducted under the watchful eye of their mother, who first settled in Windsor and later leased a house at Oxford for the purpose), neither Tiddy nor Cecco ever really established his independence from the novelist. Both chiefly spent their days in socialising, drinking and running up her bills, their sole achievement, it would seem, to have been this motive force for the mother’s writing. Spending money as quickly as she made it, even borrowing from one publisher on the strength of a contract with another, Oliphant found herself in no position either to hold out for better terms or to pursue what she called ‘the higher objects of art’. When first Tiddy and then Cecco died within a few years of one another in their mid-thirties, she recorded her devastation in language that movingly confounds her losses as a mother with her imagined failure as an artist: ‘I shall not leave anything behind me that will live.’

Elisabeth Jay writes in obvious defiance of that verdict. Touching on virtually every one of Oliphant’s book-length works as well as numerous contributions to Blackwood’s and other periodicals, she manages the delicate task of taking her subject seriously without special pleading. Sadly, however, even her passing allusion to the availability of a few modern reprints of the novels by Virago and others is already out of date. If only the Victorian nostalgia industry would prompt the BBC to produce a multi-part Chronicles of Carlingford, perhaps readers could once again find those elusive Oliphants on the bookshop shelves.