Nationality: Scottish. Born: Margaret Wilson in Wallyford, Midlothian, 4 April 1828. Family: Married her cousin Francis Wilson Oliphant in 1852 (died 1859); two sons and one daughter. Career: Full-time writer from 1849; regular contributor, Blackwood's Magazine, Edinburgh, from 1853. Granted Civil List pension, 1868. Died: 25 June 1897.
Oliphant: Collected Writings of Margaret Oliphant. 1995.
Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland. 1849.
The Rector and the Doctor's Family (Chronicles of Carlingford series). 1863.
The Two Mrs. Scudamores. 1879.
A Beleaguered City. 1879.
Two Stories of the Seen and the Unseen ("Old Lady Mary", "The Open Door"). 1885; expanded edition, Stories of the Seen and the Unseen, 1902.
The Land of Darkness, along with Some Further Chapters in the Experience of the Little Pilgrims. 1888.
Neighbours on the Green: A Collection of Stories. 1889.
The Two Marys. 1896.
The Lady's Walk. 1897.
The Ways of Life: Two Stories. 1897.
A Widow's Tale and Other Stories. 1898.
That Little Cutty and Two Other Stories. 1898.
Selected Stories of the Supernatural, edited by Margaret K. Gray. 1985.
The Doctor's Family and Other Stories, edited by Merryn Williams. 1986.
A Beleaguered City and Other Stories, edited by Merryn Williams. 1988.
Caleb Field: A Tale of the Puritans. 1851.
Memoirs and Resolutions of Adam Graeme of Mossgray. 1852.
Katie Stewart. 1853.
Harry Muir: A Story of Scottish Life. 1853.
Quiet Heart. 1854.
Magdalen Hepburn. 1854.
The Athelings; or, The Three Gifts. 1857.
The Days of My Life. 1857.
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.
Chronicles of Carlingford:
Salem Chapel. 1863.
The Perpetual Curate. 1864.
Miss Marjoribanks. 1866.
Phoebe, Junior. 1876.
Heart and Cross. 1863.
A Son of the Soil. 1865.
Madonna Mary. 1866.
The Brownlows. 1868.
The Minister's Wife. 1869.
John: A Love Story. 1870.
The Three Brothers. 1870.
Squire Arden. 1871.
At His Gates. 1872.
A Rose in June. 1874.
For Love and Life. 1874.
The Story of Valentine and His Brother. 1875.
The Curate in Charge. 1876.
Mrs. Arthur. 1877.
Young Musgrave. 1877.
The Primrose Path: A Chapter in the Annals of the Kingdom of Fife. 1878.
The Fugitives. 1879.
Within the Precincts. 1879.
The Greatest Heiress in England. 1879.
He That Will Not When He May. 1880.
Harry Joscelyn. 1881.
In Trust: The Story of a Lady and Her Lover. 1882.
A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen. 1882.
It Was a Lover and His Lass. 1883.
The Ladies Lindores. 1883.
Sir Tom. 1883.
The Wizard's Son. 1883.
Oliver's Bride. 1885.
The Prodigals and Their Inheritance. 1885.
A Country Gentleman and His Family. 1886.
Effie Ogilvie: The Story of a Young Life. 1886.
A House Divided Against Itself. 1886.
A Poor Gentleman. 1886.
The Son of His Father. 1886.
The Second Son, with Thomas Bailey Aldrich. 1888.
Cousin Mary. 1888.
Lady Car. 1889.
Kirsteen: The Story of a Scottish Family Seventy Years Ago. 1890.
The Duke's Daughter, and The Fugitives. 1890.
Sons and Daughters. 1890.
The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. 1890.
The Railway Man and His Children. 1891.
The Heir Presumptive and the Heir Apparent. 1891.
Diana Trelawney. 1892; as Diana, 1892.
The Cuckoo in the Nest. 1892.
The Marriage of Elinor. 1892.
Lady William. 1893.
The Sorceress. 1893.
A House in Bloomsbury. 1894.
Who Was Lost and Is Found. 1894.
Sir Robert's Fortune. 1894.
Two Strangers. 1894.
Old Mr. Tredgold. 1895.
The Unjust Steward; or, The Minister's Debt. 1896.
The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Scotch Church, London. 2 vols., 1862.
Francis of Assisi. 1868.
Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II. 2 vols., 1869.
Memoirs of the Count de Montalembert: A Chapter of Recent French History. 1872.
The Makers of Florence: Dante, Giotto, Savonarola, and Their City. 1876.
Molière, with F. Tarver. 1879.
Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century. 3 vols., 1882.
The Makers of Venice: Doges, Conquerors, Painters, and Men of Letters. 1887.
Memoir of the Life of John Tulloch. 1888.
Royal Edinburgh: Her Saints, Kings, Prophets, and Poets. 1890.
Jerusalem, The Holy City: Its History and Hope. 1891; reprinted in part as The House of David, 1891.
Memoirs of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and Alice Oliphant, His Wife. 1891.
The Victorian Age of English Literature, with F.R. Oliphant. 2 vols., 1892.
Thomas Chalmers, Preacher, Philosopher, and Statesman. 1893.
Historical Sketches of the Reign of Queen Anne. 1894; as Historical Characters, 1894.
A Child's History of Scotland. 1895; as A History of Scotland for the Young, 1895.
The Makers of Modern Rome. 1895.
Jeanne d'Arc: Her Life and Death. 1896.
Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons, Their Magazine and Friends. 2 vols., 1897.
The Autobiography and Letters, edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill.1899; revised edition, 1899; The Autobiography edited by Elizabeth Jay, 1990.
Queen Victoria: A Personal Sketch. 1901.
Editor, Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, by GeraldineMacpherson. 1878.*
Oliphant: A Bibliography by John Stock Clarke, 1986; Margaret Oliphant, 1828-1897: Non-Fictional Writings: A Bibliography, 1997.
The Equivocal Virtue: Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place by Vineta Colby and Robert A. Colby, 1966; Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel by Valentine Cunningham, 1975; Oliphant: A Critical Biography by Merryn Williams, 1986; The Novels of Mrs. Oliphant: A Subversive View of Traditional Themes by Margarete Rubik, 1994; Mrs. Oliphant, A Fiction to Herself: A Literary Life by Elisabeth Jay, 1995; Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive edited by D. J. Trela, 1995.* * *
Although her reputation declined after her death and remained at a low ebb throughout much of the twentieth century, Margaret Oliphant was unquestionably one of the great Victorian storytellers, as the gradual republication of her best work shows. She wrote almost a hundred novels and about 36 short stories—the dividing line is sometimes difficult to establish, because while most of the novels were of the "three-decker" Victorian variety, some of the best were really novellas or extended short stories in which there was no need for padding. In addition she wrote literally hundreds of articles and reviews, many of them from 1849 onwards for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (the "Maga," as it was familiarly known), all of which are listed in an appendix to Q. D. Lewis's 1974 edition of The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. Margaret Oliphant.
She was widowed after a decade of marriage to a weak stained-glass artist (some of whose work survives in Ely Cathedral, England) named Francis Oliphant (she was, so to say, twice an Oliphant, that also having been her mother's name); she bore six children, three of whom did not survive and another of whom died in childhood. Her two surviving sons were both failures and predeceased her. She also took on the support of a succession of impecunious relatives: brothers, cousins, a nephew, and a niece. While there is some evidence that from an early age she was something of a compulsive writer, and plenty of evidence that she enjoyed a good lifestyle (her sons went to Eton and Oxford), she had to keep writing to meet all her pecuniary needs. As a result she overwrote, like John Galt (though for other reasons), turning out some works that were far below her best. As one of her contemporaries, the novelist Howard Sturges, put it, "Her work at its best was injured by her immense productiveness. Her best work was of a very high order of merit. The harm that she did to her literary reputation seems rather the surrounding of her best with so much which she knew to be of inferior quality." While she enjoyed considerable success in the 1860s with the series of stories and novels that make up the Chronicles of Carlingford, she never again reached quite this level of acceptance by a public eager for fiction with a happy ending.
Two things militated against the recognition of her qualities as a novelist. In her own day she was in some ways an "outsider" from the cosiness of Victorian assumptions. She was a Scotswoman, born in Midlothian and brought up there and in Glasgow. Though most of her adult life was spent in England, she never lost the blunt edge of her Scots tongue nor her questioning sharpness of mind. Indeed Sir J. M. Barrie, in his introduction to a memorial edition of her short stories, recorded that "she was of an intellect so sharp that one wondered whether she ever fell asleep." Her stories were unsentimental and unromantic.
She had been brought up in the Free Church of Scotland, whose beliefs she soon discarded because of their narrowness. As the wife of an artist in Rome and in London, she experienced the ways of bohemianism, though they did nothing to sap her tough-minded common sense. She was thus able to view with amusement and a sense of sound proportion the rival graduations between High and Low then racking the Anglican Church; as a former extreme Presbyterian she understood the cause of dissent.
She also understood, and despised, the English class system (much less rigid in the Scotland of her day) and consequently was able to treat it with a sociological insight not always shown by writers like Trollope. Towards the end of her life (which she thought had dealt her a more rigorous hand than that given to Charlotte Brontë), she manifested some interest in the burgeoning suffragette movement. Certainly many of her heroines work, even if only within the confines of the home, not for them the suffocating boredom of idle parlour and of gossiping drawingroom.
She was fascinated by the spectacle of weak men finding themselves confronted with responsibilities for others stronger than themselves; in "The Rector" the Reverend Morton Proctor finds that his heart and tongue fail him in the presence of a dying woman seeking comfort, and he retires to the safety of his Oxford Fellowship, aware, however, that he has brought back something of his failure with him. No doubt as a result of her own experience, many of her men are weak self-doubters while her women are lively minded and strong.
The second factor causing further delay in the acknowledgment of Oliphant's qualities and the current restitution of her reputation was the appearance in 1966 of what Q. D. Lewis rightly called "a denigrating account of Mrs. Oliphant and her words": The Equivocal Virtue; Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market by V. and R. A. Colby. The superficiality of their approach is balanced by Margaret Oliphant (1986) by Merryn Williams, who has also played a leading editorial role in the Oliphant revival.
Oliphant's breakthrough from conventional competence to individual greatness came with The Doctor's Family and Other Stories, part of the Chronicles of Carlingford, which also includes one of her first novels, Miss Marjoribanks (pronounced "Marchbanks"). Thereafter her great works, whether novels or stories, appear at intervals, standing out from the sea of mere money-spinners and the steady flow of her journalism. They include Miss Marjoribanks, Salam Chapel, Hester, Kirsteen, A Beleaguered City, and a selection of her tales of the supernatural, Selected Stories of the Supernatural, all of which have been republished. Phoebe Junior, A Last Chronicle of Carlingford, The Ladies Lindores, and A Country Gentleman and His Family also should certainly be reissued. Significantly, many of these new editions are in various series of acknowledged "classics."
As the Victorian age wore on and Darwinism introduced an irradicable strain of doubt to all levels of Anglican belief, the Victorians developed a taste for ghost stories (though the genre itself goes to Defoe); to quote J. A. Cuddon's introduction to The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories (1982) in which Oliphant is represented, it is almost "as if the possibility of ghosts was a reassurance of an after-life." Oliphant wrote a dozen stories of the supernatural, mostly in later life, though she neither claimed to have seen a ghost herself nor sought to terrify her readers with improbably spine-chilling horrors. She probably believed, and certainly hoped, there was some sort of afterlife, even if not reached by any of the routes preached by orthodox religion. Her supernatural stories explore issues raised in her other fiction: bereavement (of which she had had plentiful experience) in "The Beleaguered City"; selfishness in "Old Lady May" and "The Land of Darkness"; and the longing for unachievable perfection in "The Library Window," her most popular story.
At her best Oliphant could produce dialogue as sharply pointed as Jane Austen, a social comment often more acutely informed than Anthony Trollope, and a sense of the broad surge and sweep of human change as evoked by George Eliot. Oliphant was admired by all the leading writers among her contemporaries, including James and Barrie. She is proving a stimulating and exciting rediscovery for us today, almost a century after her death.
See the essay on "The Library Window."