The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant, 1879

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by Margaret Oliphant, 1879

Of the three dozen or so short stories, some almost novellas, written by Margaret Oliphant, a third deal with the supernatural. All but two of them—"A Christmas Tale" (1857) and "The Secret Chamber" (1876)—date from the last 17 years of her long working life. It was a life of ceaseless literary industry, a wider range of travel experience than fell to the lot of most Victorian women writers, a less than happy marriage, and the burden in widowhood of having to support a tribe of hard-up and generally unsuccessful relations. Hers was a life of human loss and disappointment, for most of those on whose behalf she labored were invalids or failures who predeceased her.

Oliphant's attitude to the supernatural was, of course, related to her views on religion. Brought up in the Free Church of Scotland, which she rejected because of its narrow views, she viewed the harsh high and low rivalries of Victorian England, in which she spent her mature years, with a greater degree of detachment than Trollope. Unlike previous writers on the supernatural, from Defoe to Poe and Radcliffe, Oliphant was not so much concerned with creating horror and suspense as with using the device, in Margaret K. Gray's words, to "create in the reader feelings of sympathy and understanding for the beings who came back into the world of the living." In other words, she wanted to make readers reexamine their own sense of human values.

"The Library Window," collected in A Beleaguered City (1879), became the most popular and frequently reprinted of all of Oliphant's stories. It differs from her other supernatural stories in that its central spirit is earthbound, with a type of secular consolation supplanting any religious overtones.

The narrator, a young girl who dreams and is much given to poetry, has gone to stay with her aunt, Mistress Mary Balcarres, in a house in "the broad High Street of St. Rules." A window recess looks out onto a library window on the other side of the street. It is not difficult to establish that the fictional Saint Rules is, in fact, Saint Andrews, a place Oliphant visited as a girl and where there is a row of windows along the library buildings in South Street such as are described in the story.

The story takes place around Saint John's Eve (Midsummer Eve), when in the north of Scotland there is scarcely any night and in the curious subdaylight people often "see things." Aunt Mary is holding a party for her "old ladies," who are described with wonderful vividness. They include Lady Cornbee, who wears a diamond in a clawlike setting that to the niece seems sinister—ready to bite and sting, perhaps a symbol of sexual passion. Present, too, is dapper Mr. Pitmilly. The talk turns to the library window opposite the house. Is it a real window or merely a painted imitation, such as the dummy windows blocked out to evade Pitt's window tax (not abolished until 1851)?

Aunt Mary's unsureness, attributed to the misting sight of her declining years, arouses the girl's curiosity. For hours she secrets herself in the recess and stares across at the window, until she sees deeper and deeper into a dark room where a man wearing ruffs sits writing at a desk standing before a large picture. He eventually looks around and waves at her, but without recognition. Then she can no longer see anything. The illusion vanishes. A baker's boy throws a stone at the window, and the stone falls back to the street. Against her will she is taken to a conversatzione in the library. An open window where the painted bars should have been lets in air and light.

The writing man at the window recalls John Lockhart's memorable account in his Memorials of the Life of Sir Walter Scott of just such an image. Scott, who was Oliphant's literary hero, is seen writing in the study of his house in Castle Street, Edinburgh, and the image may have suggested the initial theme of this story.

But the denouement is disturbingly original. On losing her vision, the narrator becomes pale, ill, and distressed. No one else can see anything but a false window. In the end Aunt Mary, who clearly knows more than she at first pretends, realizes that the girl is what she calls "one of us," "of that kind," different from the rest. "It is a longing all your life after," Aunt Mary explains. "It is a looking—for what never comes. The eye is deceived as well as the heart." The ghost is that of a scholar who preferred his books to his lady, "one of us," though "a light woman." In vain did that lady sit in the recess, wearing the claw-set diamond ring as a token sign to her lover who never came. Her brother eventually found out about her abandonment and avenged her by killing the scholar, the ghostly writer wearing ruffs.

Oliphant creates a remarkable sense of unease not only in the story's setting but also in the ambivalence of the relationship of the various characters. Through his Edinburgh window Sir Walter Scott was seen throwing down each completed sheet to the floor. The scholar never seemed to get to the end of a sheet. What was he writing? Why did he desert his lady for the pursuit of some strange, unspecified sort of knowledge? What made her, seemingly constant, "a light woman"? Was there not some moral, an overly extreme justification, in the brother's anger? What are Aunt Mary and her niece? The memorable quality of the story is created precisely because not one of these mysteries is ever answered. The figures flit before our imagination as if in a tragedy actually seen behind silent glass. When the very old Lady Cornbee dies and leaves the ring to the narrator, she locks it in a box and leaves it in a house she never thereafter visits.

In later life, widowed young (like Oliphant), the narrator fancies that she sees the scholar's face looking at her from a crowd. Such momentary glimpses were consoling. Once, returning from India with no one to welcome her, she suddenly saw his face on the quay, but when she got ashore, "he had disappeared as he did from the window, with that one wave of his hand."

There is no horror, only a sad image of lost possibility, without even moral justification, the right and wrong of it, called into question.

"In the end, one cannot explain 'The Library Window,"' says Merryn Williams, a champion of the modern Oliphant revival. "It was part of her creed that a great many things could never be explained by limited human beings, which is why so many of her stories have an open ending." Yet the image of the scholar at the window lingers in the mind's eye long after many a merely corporeal fictional image has dissolved from memory.

—Maurice Lindsay

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The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant, 1879

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