Margaret Oliphant

Margaret Oliphant (also known as Mrs. Oliphant; born Margaret Oliphant Wilson, married name Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant; 4 April 1828 – 25 June 1897) was a Scottish writer.

She was born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh, the youngest child and only daughter of Francis W. Wilson, a clerk, and Margaret Oliphant Wilson. Her family moved to Lasswade, near Edinburgh, then to Glasgow, and finally settled in Liverpool in 1838. In 1845, Margaret became engaged to a “J.Y.” on the eve of his emigration to America, but they soon broke their engagement. Around this time, while nursing her mother through an illness, she wrote a novel, Christian Melville, which would be published later in 1855, under her brother Willie’s name.

Margaret published her first novel, Passages in the Life of Mrs Margaret Maitland, in 1849, when she was 21 years old. In that same year, she stayed in London for three months, working as housekeeper for her brother Willie, who was showing the first signs of alchoolism that would make him later dependent on his sister until his death in 1885.

In 1851, after having published several novels with considerable success, she was invited by the publisher William Blackwood to contribute to the famous Blackwood’s Magazine. She would eventually call herself Blackwood’s “general utility woman”, for her ability to write about almost any subject, moving through different genres: fiction, literary criticism, biography, and history, among others.

During her stay in London, Margaret also met her cousin Frank Oliphant, a stained-glass window designer and painter, with whom she would marry in 1852. They moved to London and had six children, three of whom died in infancy. Early in her career, she constantly blamed herself for their deaths, and feared this was due to the considerable amount of mental work she was going through alongside her household duties.

Margaret’s husband developed symptoms of tuberculosis, and the family moved to Italy in 1859. She approached several publishers, looking for a position that would provide her with a regular income, such as an editorial post, but would never really reach the financial security she sought. Her husband died that same year, in October, in Rome. His death left her stranded far from home, pregnant, and deep in debt. Left almost entirely without resources, Oliphant moved briefly to her brother Frank’s home in England, where she supported her family by her own literary activity. In addition to her children, Oliphant supported her alcoholic brother Willie and her brother Frank and his three children, after his financial ruin in 1868. She was also the literary mentor of the Irish novelist Emily Lawless.

In her earlier years she was deeply scornful of the campaign for women’s rights, but gradually changed her views later. In 1869, in a review of The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and of Women’s Work and Women’s Culture, a series of essays edited by Josephine G. Butler, Oliphant adopts a sympathetic view to the suffrage movement for women householders (The Edinburgh Review, October 1869, p. 572-602). Later, in an article contributed to Fraser’s Magazine in 1880, “The Grievances of Women”, she adopts a critical view against male prejudice towards women and their refusal to treat women on equal terms (Fraser’s Magazine 101, May 1880, p.  698-710). In 1889, in a review of Sarah Grand‘s feminist novel Ideala (1888), Oliphant professed to sympathize with all the claims made by the women’s movement (“The Old Saloon”, Blackwood’s Magazine 146, August 1889, p. 257-258).

Oliphant was greatly affected by the deaths of her daughter Maggie in 1864, her son Cyril in 1890 and her son Francis (Cecco) in 1894 – her only children to survive to adulthood. When her sons died within a few years of one another in their mid-thirties, she wrote: “I shall not leave anything behind me that will live.” In 1896, she started to suffer from increasingly severe internal pains, later attributed to the cause of her death, cancer of the colon. Margaret Oliphant died in the midst of the celebrations for the Queen’s Jubilee, in June 1897.

Opinions on her literary merits are divided: Virginia Woolf was deeply critical of Oliphant’s work, and wrote, in Three Guineas (1938), that “Mrs. Oliphant sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children.” Merryn Williams, on the other hand, wrote, in the book Women in the English Novel 1800-1900 (1984), that Oliphant’s “outlook is so much more sophisticated than that of her contemporaries that she often seems to belong to another age”.  In an obituary note written after her death in 1897, Henry James claimed that ‘few writers of our time have been so organised for liberal, for – one may almost put it – heroic production.’ Though Oliphant never earned the reputation of Jane Austen or George Eliot, she was reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist.

In her Autobiography, she wrote: I am in very little danger of having my life written. 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.”.

Over the course of her career, Oliphant published nearly one hundred novels novels, and innumerable other works of fiction and nonfiction. Even though she was greatly admired in her lifetime, her books remain now mostly out of print.

Books

Novels

  • Margaret Maitland (1849, Passages in the Life of Mrs Margaret Maitland of Sunnyside, Written by Herself).
  • Merkland (1850).
  • Caleb Field (1851).
  • John Drayton (1851).
  • Adam Graeme (1852).
  • The Melvilles (1852).
  • Katie Stewart (1852).
  • Harry Muir (1853).
  • Ailieford (1853).
  • The Quiet Heart (1854).
  • Magdalen Hepburn (1854).
  • Zaidee (1855).
  • Lilliesleaf (1855).
  • Christian Melville (1855).
  • The Athelings (1857).
  • The Days of My Life (1857).
  • Orphans (1858).
  • The Laird of Norlaw (1858).
  • Agnes Hopetoun’s Schools and Holidays (1859).
  • Lucy Crofton (1860).
  • The House on the Moor (1861).
  • The Last of the Mortimers (1862).
  • Heart and Cross (1863).
  • The Chronicles of Carlingford:
    • Salem Chapel (1863).
    • The Rector (1863).
    • Doctor’s Family (1863).
    • The Perpetual Curate (1864).
    • Miss Marjoribanks (1866).
    • Phoebe Junior (1876).
  • A Son of the Soil (1865).
  • Agnes (1866).
  • Madonna Mary (1867).
  • Brownlows (1868).
  • The Minister’s Wife (1869).
  • The Three Brothers (1870).
  • John: A Love Story (1870).
  • Squire Arden (1871).
  • At his Gates (1872).
  • Ombra (1872).
  • May (1873).
  • Innocent (1873).
  • The Story of Valentine and his Brother (1875).
  • A Rose in June (1874).
  • For Love and Life (1874).
  • Whiteladies (1875).
  • An Odd Couple (1875).
  • The Curate in Charge (1876).
  • Carità (1877).
  • Young Musgrave (1877).
  • Mrs. Arthur (1877).
  • The Primrose Path (1878).
  • Within the Precincts (1879).
  • The Fugitives (1879).
  • A Beleaguered City]] (1879).
  • The Greatest Heiress in England (1880).
  • He That Will Not When He May (1880).
  • In Trust (1881).
  • Harry Joscelyn (1881).
  • Lady Jane (1882).
  • A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (1882).
  • The Lady Lindores (1883).
  • Sir Tom (1883).
  • Hester (1883).
  • It Was a Lover and his Lass (1883).
  • The Lady’s Walk (1883).
  • The Wizard’s Son (1884).
  • Madam (1884).
  • The Prodigals and their Inheritance (1885).
  • Oliver’s Bride (1885).
  • A Country Gentleman and his Family (1886).
  • A House Divided Against Itself (1886).
  • Effie Ogilvie (1886).
  • A Poor Gentleman (1886).
  • The Son of his Father (1886).
  • Joyce (1888).
  • Cousin Mary (1888).
  • The Land of Darkness (1888).
  • Lady Car (1889).
  • Kirsteen (1890).
  • The Mystery of Mrs. Biencarrow (1890).
  • Sons and Daughters (1890).
  • The Railway Man and his Children (1891).
  • The Heir Presumptive and the Heir Apparent (1891).
  • The Marriage of Elinor (1891).
  • Janet (1891).
  • The Cuckoo in the Nest (1892).
  • Diana Trelawny (1892).
  • The Sorceress (1893).
  • A House in Bloomsbury (1894).
  • Sir Robert’s Fortune (1894).
  • Who Was Lost and is Found (1894).
  • Lady William (1894).
  • Two Strangers (1895).
  • Old Mr. Tredgold (1895).
  • The Unjust Steward (1896).
  • The Ways of Life (1897).

Short stories

  • A Beleagured City: and Other Tales of the Seen and the Unseen (1869)
  • Neighbours on the Green (1889).
  • A Widow’s Tale and Other Stories (1898)
  • That Little Cutty (1898).
  • “The Open Door”, story. In: Great Ghost Stories (1918).

Articles

Nonfiction

  • Sundays (1858)
  • The Life of Edward Irving (1862)
  • Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II (1869)
  • Francis of Assisi (1870)
  • The Makers of Florence (1876)
  • Dante (1877)
  • Dress (1878)
  • Molière (1879)
  • Queen Victoria (1880)
  • Cervantes (1880)
  • A Literary History of England from 1760 to 1825 (1882)
  • The Makers of Venice (1887)
  • Royal Edinburgh (1890)
  • Jerusalem (1891)
  • The Victorian Age of English Literature (1892)
  • Historical Sketches of the Reign of Queen Anne (1894)
  • The Makers of Modern Rome (1895)
  • Jeanne D’Arc (1896)
  • William Blackwood and his Sons (1897)
  • “The Sisters Brontë.” In: Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign (1897)
  • The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant, edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill (1899)
  •  The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant, edited by Elisabeth Jay (2002)

About her

  • The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place, by Vineta Colby and Robert Colby (1966)
  • Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography, by Merryn Williams (1986)
  • Margaret Oliphant: A Bibliography, by John Stock Clarke (1986)
  • The Novels of Mrs. Oliphant: A Subversive View of Traditional Themes, by Magarete Rubik (1994)
  • Mrs. Oliphant: A Fiction to Herself, by Elisabeth Jay (1995)
  • Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by D.J. Trela (1995)
  • Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, by Vanessa D. Dickerson (1996)
  • Margaret Oliphant, 1828–1897: Non-fictional Writings: A Bibliography, by John Stock Clarke (1997)
  • Basketful of Fragments, by Krystyna Weinstein (2011, fictional biography)

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