Laurence Oliphant Essay - Critical Essays

Oliphant, Laurence


Laurence Oliphant 1829(?)-1888

English travel writer, novelist, and religious theorist.

An English journalist and satirist, Laurence Oliphant is best known for his commentaries on Victorian society and for writings chronicling his own varied experiences. Although his work as a travel writer, foreign correspondent, and novelist was widely popular, Oliphant ultimately abandoned these literary pursuits to devote himself to writing about his spiritual self-discovery.

Biographical Information

Oliphant was born in South Africa to a British attorney-general and the daughter of a British colonel. The family moved between South Africa, England, and Ceylon during Oliphant's childhood. During his twenties and thirties he was well-received in London society and travelled extensively, detailing his journeys in a series of essays that appeared in London periodicals. In 1865, he began publishing his first novel, Piccadilly, as a series in Blackwood's magazine. The same year, Oliphant was elected to Parliament but did not assume his political post. He came under the influence of an American religious mystic, Thomas Lake Harris, and in 1867 joined the religious community headed by Harris in New York. When the Franco-German war broke out in 1870, Oliphant worked for a year in Paris as a foreign correspondent, and there met his future wife. Although the Oliphants eventually broke from Harris, they retained their religious beliefs, and moved to Palestine to establish a religious community with Oliphant himself at the head. He died there in 1888.

Major Works

Oliphant's early work stemmed from his extensive travels. His book The Russian Shores of the Black Sea (1853) was released shortly before the Crimean War and became an instant success, positioning Oliphant as an expert on the area and securing him a position as a foreign correspondent. His novel Piccadilly (1865) reveals growing dissatisfaction with the shallowness of a social existence and hints at the spiritual fulfillment that he presumably found in the cult led by Harris. His novel Altiora Peto (1883) also addresses the frivolity of society life. His later work is devoted entirely to expounding the guiding principles of his spiritual beliefs. He claimed that the treatise Sympneumata; or, Evolutionary Forces Now Active in Man (1885), was written by a spirit speaking through his wife.

Critical Reception

Oliphant's travelogues and social commentaries are generally regarded as well-crafted and insightful, in contrast to his religious writings, which have been described as cryptic and labyrinthine. While his unique spirituality is subtley expressed in his novels and explicated thoroughly in his religious statements, Oliphant's religious exegesis was never embraced by his readership. Oliphant's writings are not ranked among the classics of his time; however, his critics acknowledge that his novels provide a vivid picture of Victorian values and lifestyles.

Principal Works

A Journey to Katmandu with the Camp of Jung Bahadoor (travel essay) 1852

The Russian Shores of the Black Sea in the Autumn of 1852, with a Voyage down the Volga, and a Tour through the Country of the Don Cossacks (travel essay) 1853

Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China and Japan in the Years 1857, ′58, ′59 (travel essay) 1859

Piccadilly: A Fragment of Contemporary Biography (novel) 1865

Altiora Peto (novel) 1883

Sympneumata; or, Evolutionary Forces Now Active in Man (treatise) 1885

Masollam: A Problem of the Period (novel) 1886

Haifa; or, Life in Modern Palestine (journal) 1887

Episodes in a Life of Adventure; or, Moss from a Rolling Stone (autobiography) 1887

Scientific Religion; or, Higher Possibilities of Life and Practice through the Operation of Natural Forces (treatise) 1888


Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (essay date 1870)

SOURCE: A review of Piccadilly, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. CVIII, No. DCLX, October, 1870, pp. 401-22.

[In the following excerpt from Blackwood's, the anonymous critic examines the social context and spiritual evolution of the principle characters of Piccadilly.]

It would be impossible to imagine any book more utterly puzzling to the careless reader, who is unprepared to encounter anything more weighty than ordinary sketches of contemporary life—or more full of meaning to the thoughtful, than the volume which, after a lapse of several years from its original appearance in these pages, has just been republished under the above title. We make no apology for thus taking up, in the way of criticism and review, a work originally produced to the world by Maga herself; for the book is too curious and individual to be received as an exposition of any opinions but those of its author; and in so far as it is representative at all, belongs neither to party, creed, nor faction with which we have any relations. Its views are not ours, neither are we prepared to accept its conclusions. It is a work by itself, pervaded through and through by the workings of a mind which has been stimulated by strong feeling into strong action, and which has thrown off at once all the ordinary trammels and ordinary motives of authorship. The writer has written, not because he wanted (as most of us do) to write a book with certain well-understood results of praise and pudding, but because his heart has burned within him, and silence has become impossible. When by times, and at long intervals, a voice thus breaks forth, as it were perforce, from the very heart of the world itself, disclosing a greater or less amount of individual knowledge of all its problems and troubles, and confronting its difficulties with all the earnestness of one practically and personally involved, its interest is far deeper than the interest of any mere literary production even of genius. Piccadilly is not a work of philosophy, nor is it a record of religious experience, nor a novel, nor a satire on modern society—and yet in some respects it is all these put together. Mr. Kingsley made an attempt many years ago, in his book Yeast, to give a glimpse into the depths which are covered over by the dazzling surface of society, and to show all the mysteries and tragedies that are going on below. But Mr. Kingsley's book was essentially melodramatic, concerning itself with those tales of seduction and suicide, black villany and impotent white virtue, with which the British public has been long familiar. Mr. Oliphant does not tread that well-known ground. There are no vulgar crimes behind the scenes which he pushes aside for us, but only that much more elaborate and complicated machinery, which, with a hundred conscious and unconscious pretences at better meaning, is really constructed for the deification of Self, the great god of modem existence. Though he preaches many a sharp sermon, and points his lessons with uncompromising plainness, he does not himself assume any lofty standing-ground as of a preacher superior to his audience. On the contrary, he speaks out of the midst of the audience—a man who has been trained in their code, has worked as they work, and has been moved by the same motives. His are not the crude difficulties of a boy bewildered by the contrast between some academic ideal of nobleness and the puzzling realities and prose of life. He knows society and its sins so well that they do not horrify him, nor call any violent comment from his lips. They are the sins among which he has been brought up, which he is prepared to meet, and which cannot but be half comic to him, though at the same time they are wholly sad and terrible. They are comic because his accustomed eye sees through the fictions that veil them, and he cannot refrain from a certain amused admiration of the cleverness of the actors in that strange deceptive panorama. He is so far behind the scenes as to be aware of the wonderful mixture of cunning and simplicity which is visible to the instructed eye in all the wiles of human nature. He sees how the cunningest, wariest, most artful of plotters will now and then stick his head into the sand like an ostrich, and, with a credulity more wonderful than his cunning, believe in the credulity of others. He sees how some of the actors in this wild phantasmagoria have so wrapped themselves about with fine deceits that they are all but unconscious—sometimes, indeed, wholly unconscious—of the meaner motives below. All this he perceives without horror, without any violence of indignation, or bitterness of scorn. To perceive it is the highest condemnation; but the observer in this case does not vituperate, he only exhibits. Neither is he prepared utterly to condemn even the victim whom he holds up to the world on the point of his spear. He himself is ready to enter into the arena, to take up the sinner's own weapons, to adopt with exaggerated openness his own code of principle, and, with a certain enjoyment of the conflict, foil him on his own ground. With all his perception of the utter falsity of everything round him he is never cynical; he is calm and friendly and impartial, looking on at all those pranks, which make the angels weep, with a smile not of scorn but of insight. He is not horrified, he is familiar with it all; and in this calmness lies one great secret of power.

Such an exposition, however, by a spectator intensely in earnest yet unemotional, has been done before; but there is another element introduced which gives complete originality to Mr. Oliphant's book. His hero is a man of the world, standing on precisely the same level as the other men of the world represented in it. He is not an ideal reformer—a being of grand motives and elevated ways of working. Such a personage does exist in the work, but he stands among the mists as do most ideal creations, an act of homage to the great and noble rather than an actual embodiment of humanity. The hero of the book—the writer of the autobiography—is not ideal. The peculiarity about him is, that he has been driven half wild in the midst of his natural eccentricity by a sudden gleam of light from heaven. Christianity has come upon him like a sunstroke, confusing his head and his life. He had known all about the hollowness of society, and the falsehood of its individual members, and the amazing littleness of its aims, before, and had looked upon them with calm philosophy. But it has suddenly flashed upon his mind that Christianity means something else than this—that it means succour and aid and deliverance, an abandonment of self, an adoption of the cause of others; the life not of a mere spectator, however clearsighted. Such a thought, coming suddenly into the mind of a well-bred and tolerant modem Englishman, accustomed to let everybody ruin or advance himself his own way, to avoid responsibility and interference, and maintain the theory that every man knows what is best for himself, might well produce the most bewildering effect; and the great success in this book, a success which probably genius could not have attained, but only that experience which is sometimes above genius—is the wonderful picture afforded us of the chaos produced in a man's mind and life by this sudden change of motive. It is like a sudden change of wind on the course of a ship at sea. The vessel whirls and shakes and staggers in its course. The ancient direction has become impossible; the new has to be met by spasmodic tacks and shifts and struggles. Currents are more subtle and sails more delicate in the spiritual world. The soul reels and struggles and tries back, and is forced forward, until at last the new breeze takes possession of the trembling sail, and drives about the unwilling helm, and overcomes the tremor and vibration of resistance. This is the crisis which Mr. Oliphant has represented to us with a truth and force which are very impressive. The reader who does not take the trouble to enter into his intention and idea, will no doubt find a great deal that is most amusing, most telling, and remarkable, in this book; but he will miss the point at which it rises out of the external into the inner life—out of those revelations which depend on sharp sight and deep observation only, into those which belong to the higher conditions of individual feeling—the tidings sent from one soul to another, deepest instruction, information, sympathetic communication which can be made by man to man.

There are very few things which have been so vulgarised by description, so associated with bad taste, mean motives, foolish mock-humility, and the badly-veiled pretences of self-love, as the history of personal religion. It is hard to say why it should be so, for no subject should be, or can be, more interesting to the world. It is impossible to doubt that, in a great many cases, religious life begins in the individual by that crisis and struggle between the old and the new, the true and the false, the light and darkness, which all religious writers and sects have agreed in calling conversion, and which many consider indispensable to every Christian. Nothing in a life, not any of the greatest events which affect it, can be so important as this crisis; and yet nothing can be less human or less divine than the narratives of it which are continually being poured upon us, and which by common consent are relegated to the simple classes of the community, to parish libraries and Sunday-schools, and readers who cannot help themselves. The educated classes, to whom literature in general addresses itself, cannot be said to regard such works as possibly addressed to them. We do not pretend to receive or judge them as (what they ought to be) more interesting than any other kind of history, involving all the deeper emotions, showing us more than philosophy, more than poetry can reveal to us of the workings of the heart. Perhaps one reason of this complete failure is that there is but one type of conversion recognised by what is generally called the religious world. We have never got beyond the Pilgrim's Progress notwithstanding the wonderful changes which since then have modified all other essential characteristics of the race. And unfortunately John Bunyan's Christian, though a very wonderful impersonation, and one which has perhaps exercised a greater influence on the common mind than any ideal man invented by any other poet from that day till this, is no longer our typical pilgrim.

The peculiarity of religious life in this age is not that overwhelming sense of personal danger, and necessity for deliverance, which inspired the sixteenth century. It is not judgment to come which appals us, nor hell and the lake of brimstone, nor the hideous demons with their awful claws. Even the Celestial City, with its streets of gold and gates of pearl, is a dim imagination to us, at once material and unreal. We are capable of looking at Satan's hoofs all cloven and harmless, and saying, like the philosopher, "Graminivorous! I am not afraid of you." Christian is one of our oldest friends, and his adventures never fail of a certain charm; but he is a hero of romance, like Sir Galahad or Sir Percival, and does not resemble one of us. Neither is the converted man of religious biography one of us. The Richard Weavers, the converted blacksmiths, the shining lights of Revivals, are equally apart from our knowledge. Let us throw no doubt or suspicion upon them. Their way is as old as Christianity, and doubtless will last as long as matter-of-fact wickedness and simple intelligences exist in the world. The stories of religious experience which abound in print are no doubt true to the consciousness of the minds which produced them, but they are not true to nature, and they do not affect us. We ask ourselves, Are these people made of flesh and blood? had they, as we have, loves and duties infinitely more precious than their own lives or comfort? or is this curious spiritual transmogrification of the fleshly thing called self-love any real gain or advantage to them? We grant that they are good people, but we cannot identify them. They belong to another region, a different development. The atmosphere about them is to us artificial and unreal. While we find ourselves in a practical restless world full of contending things and interests, they are in a sphere where doctrines and feelings are supreme, and where a man is not judged by what he is, or does, but by the dogmas he believes, and the fluctuations of temper and spiritual heat and cold to which he is subject. If this is the only way of attaining religious light and rising to a higher existence, what is to become of us? for our hearts are not touched, neither do our minds approve.

The picture Mr. Oliphant makes for us is of a very different description. His hero, as we have said, is no melodramatic sinner, but a man of fashion, with no horrible tragedies or depravities in his life to bring him to shame were they revealed. He is not a debauchee, nor a tyrant, but a man who has mingled much wandering and adventure in primitive places with abundant knowledge and experience of that social life which is the highest as it is the most puzzling result of civilisation. He is in the world, in its fullest current, and yet he too is a pilgrim in the agonies of a conversion involving struggles as difficult as those of Christian. But this modem convert is not like Christian. He is not seized upon by a pressing sense of any burden on his back—of all things in the world his sins are about the last that he is thinking of. It is not the jaws of hell or the valley of the shadow of death that haunt his dreams. His thoughts are of the world about him, that world which he knows so much better than any doctrines or philosophies. He has known it long, and it is no new revelation of its deceits and vanities which startles him. What is new and confusing is the thought that he owes something to it—that his duty is not to remain passive and smile at its follies, or transfix it with polished arrows of calm impartial sarcasm, but to open its eyes, if he can, to what is true and just and good. It has long been apparent to him—before, indeed, any gleam of religious consciousness came into his own mind—that the time was out of joint. He has been enduring, not enjoying, it for years back, perceiving the hypocrisies, falsehoods, and vain fictions, of which society is full—seeing clearly that everything was hollow, fictitious, forced, and unreal, in the existence of which his own life formed a part. He has looked on at this spectacle sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tragic jeers and sarcasm, but generally with a contemptuous indifference, and keen perception of its comic, not to say grotesque, aspect. He himself, too, has been, like the other players in the comedy, acting his part, or rather half-a-dozen parts, as caprice dictated, looking on at his own performance as at theirs, and seeing through both. This is the true spirit of the modem mind, when "awakened" out of the first dull content of nature, or the imaginary satisfaction of Youth. It is not penitent so much as uneasy. It has no fear of judgment to come, nor any deep sense of its own ill-doing; but only a weary, restless, painful consciousness that things are not well either with itself or its fellow-creatures—that the life it is leading is not justified by truth and nature, and cannot be in accordance with the purposes of God.

This first avant courier of religion—this inner voice which replaces that of the Baptist in the modem world, has sounded in a great many hearts which have never come directly under a decided religious influence: perhaps it would be safe to say that it affects more or less all the nobler spirits of the generation in one way or other. With some it leads but to a cynical disdain, and painful, fierce, suppressed indignation of the world and all its ways—many it sends wandering to the comers of the earth, among savages or primitive races, in search of the reality which has died out of civilised existence. It brings down here and there a sick soul out of the higher classes into the lower, to try what manual toil and poverty may do to restore truth to the earth; but whatever its manifestation may be, this is the prevailing form taken by that seriousness which in all ages and epochs has been the preface to religious life. Perhaps the fact that there is no pinch of personal anxiety about it, or very little—and that "what shall I do to be saved?" is not in the least its natural outcry—is the reason why this state of pregnant uneasiness sometimes exists for a whole lifetime without ripening into any true religious conviction. But, nevertheless, it is the state corresponding to that in which the soldiers and the publicans hurried to John the Baptist, and in which, throughout all ages, men and women have thrown themselves wildly upon every new religious teacher. There are still, no doubt, awakenings and conversions after the old model—great personal crises, at which the individual soul finds itself face to face with God, and has to work out its salvation according to its own consciousness, and attain an individual deliverance; but while these occur by units, they are counted by thousands who are sick of this weary and imperfect round of life. The people who are disgusted with civilisation, disgusted with progress, sick of the hubbub of pretended benevolence, pretended freedom, pretended religiousness and feel life to be all wrong and out of harmony, without knowing how to put it right, are countless in number. It is this phase of modem feeling which Mr. Oliphant sets before us, not so much to elucidate a state of mind, as to express a feeling which to a very high and intense point he himself shares. His hero is moved by it almost to the height of madness. And yet this very madness is not real, but restrained by a secret thread of consciousness all the time that he is not mad, and cannot be—that he is incapable of thus easily escaping from the great problem. The time is out of joint—the world is out of harmony: broken concords hovering about in the air—sensibilities that start into sight when we least expect them—hidden gleams of good out of the very soul of evil—give note to those who are not too warped by their dissatisfaction to mark them, that harmony is, must be, ought to be, still possible, did we but know how to bring it about; and here and there the sick soul bestirs itself, and makes a wild effort to bring it about; but it has no real energy in any of its movements. It is uneasiness that moves it—nothing more certain—restless disapproval, dissatisfaction, discontent.

When, however, the bewildering sense that it is his duty no longer to smile and stand aloof, but to do something to aid and help the struggling mass, becomes irresistible, the convert can no longer keep silent. He is not made into a wise and far-seeing and large-minded reformer by the struggling determination which thus comes uppermost within him. On the contrary, he is as are the crowds out of which, so short a time before, he has been taken, differing only in this point, that while all his habits and ways of working are as yet unchanged, the spring of his actions, the great leading motive of his conduct, has been suddenly altered. That has been altered, but none of his customs have been altered, and he has the entire force of the stream to fight against not only outside him but within him; and now and then is so carried away by use and wont that he falls to work in the old ways, and does his best to accomplish the new good which he desires by the old means to which he is accustomed. How Lord Frank Vanecourt does this—how he relapses, after his first self-devotion to the work of a social missionary, into continual outbursts of levity and confusion of new motives and old manners—is the subject of Mr. Oliphant's narrative, if narrative it can be called. He sets out with the intention of a crusade against society as actually constituted in all its developments—an attempt to reform everybody and change the character of modem civilisation; and he ends, as is natural, in entangling himself in the private affairs of a circle, bringing endless trouble upon his own head, being misunderstood all round, and finally sacrificing himself, his private feelings, and a slice out of his fortune, for the rectification of his neighbour's business—a proceeding entirely against his own interest, and, so to speak, out of his way altogether. That he does this in a confused, incoherent, half-mad way, baffling all his friends, and laying himself open to every kind of misconception, is a part of the plan of the tale; and it is this which gives it the strange stamp of originality, and of more than originality—absolute reality and truth—with which it inspires the thoughtful reader. It is intensely alive and real in the very exaggeration of its resolves, the air of levity and extravagance under which its purpose is laid, and which at first puzzles the spectator, and prompts the question, Does it mean anything at all? what does it mean? which is a question so often asked by the matter-of-fact intelligence in presence of that tone of half banter, half solemnity, which hides the meaning of so many men in society itself. We feel with Lord Frank, as we feel with many in real life, that we don't know whether he is in jest or earnest; that what he says may be real and grave as life and death, or that it may be but a solemn jest, in uttering which the speaker laughs at our credulity, laughs at his own magniloquence, and at the possibility of any real reforming effort, and, in short, at everything in earth and heaven. Here, for instance, is the first statement of the purpose which has arisen in his mind while he has been watching the stream of carriages going to Lady Palmerston's ball—and while he has chattered to and got a cup of tea for Lady Veriphast at that solemnity:—

As I write, the magnitude of the task I propose to myself assumes still larger proportions. I yearn to develop in the world at large those organs of conscientiousness and benevolence which we all possess but so few exercise. I invoke the co-operation of my readers in this great work: I implore them to accompany me step by step in the crusade which I am about to preach in favour of the sacrifice of self for the public good. I demand their sympathy in this monthly record of my trials as an uncompromising exponent of the motives of the day, and I claim their tender solicitude should I writhe, crushed and mangled by the iron hand of a social tyranny dexterously concealed in its velvet glove. I will begin my efforts at reform with the Church; I may then possibly diverge to the Legislature, and I will mix in the highest circles of society in the spirit of a missionary. I will endeavour to show everybody up to everybody else in the spirit of love; and if they end by quarrelling with each other and with me, I shall at least have the satisfaction of feeling myself divested of all further responsibility in the matter. In my present frame of mind apathy would be culpable and weakness a crime.

With this grand but vague and wild statement of his intentions, Lord Frank, smiled at by his best friend, Lord Grandon, the ideal (but undecipherable) man of the drama, the Grandison hero, for whose benefit all the work is to be done—sets out, not in the least knowing how to begin upon his mission—his first step being the acceptance of a pleasant invitation to a pleasant house in the country. Here he meets with a colonial bishop, a converted Hindoo, an evangelical and stockbroking Lady Broadhem, an eminent member of the "worldly-holy" section of society, with her son and daughters—and several other remarkable specimens of good society. Nothing could be more amusing, more trenchant and uncompromising, yet less tinctured with gall or cynicism, than these sketches of social lions. Here, for instance, is our introduction to the new characters:—

They had all disappeared to dress for dinner, however, and Dickiefield had not come home from riding, so that when Grandon and I entered the drawing-room, we found only the deserted apparatus of the afternoon tea, a Bishop, and a black man—and we had to introduce ourselves. The Bishop had a beard and an apron, his companion a turban, and such very large shoes, that it was evident his feet were unused to the confinement. The Bishop looked stern and determined; perhaps there was just a dash of worldliness about the twist of his mustache. His companion wore a subdued and unctuous appearance; his face was shaved; and the whites of his eyes were very bloodshot and yellow. Neither of them was the least embarrassed when we were shown in; Grandon and I both were slightly. 'What a comfort that the snow is gone!' said I to the Bishop.

'Yes,' said his Lordship; 'the weather is very trying to me, who have just arrived from the Caribbee Islands.'

'I suppose you have accompanied his lordship from the Caribbee Islands.' said I, turning to the swarthy individual, whom I naturally supposed to be a specimen convert.

'No,' he said; 'he had arrived some months since from Bombay.'

'Think of staying long in England?' said Grandon.

'That depends upon my prospects at the next general election—I am looking out for a borough.'

'Dear me!' said Grandon; and we all, Bishop included, gazed on him with astonishment.

'My name is Chundango,' he went on. 'My parents were both Hindoos. Before I was converted my other name was Juggonath; now I am John. I became acquainted with a circle of dear Christian friends in Bombay, during my connection, as catechist, with the Tabernacle Missionary Society, was peculiarly favoured in some mercantile transactions into which I subsequently entered in connection with cotton, and have come to spend my fortune, and enter public life, in this country. I was just expressing to our dear friend here,' pointing in a patronising way towards the Bishop, 'my regret at finding that he shares in views which are becoming so prevalent in the Church, and are likely to taint the Protestantism of Great Britain and part of Ireland.'

'Goodness!' thought I, 'how this complicates matters! Which of these two now stands most in need of my services as a missionary?' … As Dickiefield was lighting me up to my bedroom, I could not resist congratulating him upon his two guests. 'A good specimen of the "unsound muscular," the Bishop,' said I.

'Not very,' said Dickiefield; 'he is not so unsound as he looks, and he is not unique, like the other. I flatter myself I have under my roof the only well-authenticated instance of the Hindoo converted millionaire. It is true he became a "Government Christian" when he was a poor boy of fifteen, and began life as a catechist; then he saw a good mercantile opening, and went into cotton, out of which he has realised an immense fortune, and now is going into political life in England, which he could not have done in an unconverted condition. Who ever heard before of a Bombay man wanting to get into Parliament, and coming home with a carte du pays all arranged before he started? He advocates extension of the franchise, ballot, and the Evangelical Alliance; so I thought I would fasten him on to Broadhem—they'll help to float each other.'

'Who else have you got here besides?' I asked.

'Oh, only a petroleum aristocrat from the oil regions of America—another millionaire. He is a more wonderful instance even than Chundango, for he was a poor man three months ago, when he "struck lie." You will find him most intelligent, full of information; but you will look upon him, of course, as the type of the peculiar class to which he belongs, and not of Americans generally.' And my warm-hearted and eccentric friend, Lord Dickiefield, left me to my meditations and my toilet.

Another, the heroine, who is unfortunately too much of the Grandison or high-ideal type, like Lord Grandon, to interest us deeply, is introduced, by a little classification of young ladies in society, as follows:—

I ran over in my mind my young lady categories, as follows:

The wholly worldly
First, and
The worldly holy

In this case the distinction is very fine; but though they are bracketed together, there is an appreciable difference, which perhaps some day, when I have time, I shall discuss.

Second, 'The still deep fast.'

This may seem to be a contradiction in terms; but the fact is, while the upper surface seems tranquil enough, there is a strong, rapid undercurrent. The danger is, in this case, that you are very apt to go in what is called a 'header.' The moment you dive you get caught by the undercurrent, and the chances are you never rise to the surface again.

Third, 'The rippling glancing fast.'

This is less fatal, but, to my mind not so attractive as the other. The ripples are produced by quantities of pebbles, which are sure to give one what is called in America a 'rough time.' The glancing is only dangerous to youths in the first stage, and is perfectly innocuous after one season.

Fourth, 'The rushing gushing fast.'

This speaks for itself, and may be considered perfectly harmless. There are only two slows—the 'strong-minded blue slow,' and the 'heavy slow.'

The 'strong-minded blue slow' includes every branch of learning. It is extremely rare, and alarming to the youth of the day. I am rather partial to it myself.

The 'heavy slow' is, alas! too common.

Lady Broadhem is, however, a still more important character than either Chundango or "Joseph Caribbee Islands." Her cleverness and promptitude and invincible pluck and courage fill the reader with admiration, and even, it is evident, delight the carnal man, who is not quite subdued in Lord Frank himself. The way in which she trafficks with the hideous Hindoo for the hand of the beautiful and pure-minded Lady Ursula, and shifts and changes when Lord Frank, a duke's son and enormously rich, comes in as an opposition candidate; the duel between the two for a frank statement of her debts and difficulties on the one hand, and for her consent to the marriage of Grandon and Ursula on the other,—have ability and humour enough in them to set up half-a-dozen ordinary novels. Lady Broadhem is grand in her audacity, her strength of purpose, and unscrupulous resolution; her readiness to seize every loophole, and take advantage of every accident. "What, dear Mr. Chundango," she remarked, "matters the colour of your skin if your blood be pure? If your jewellery and your conversion are both genuine, what more could an anxious mother desire for her beloved daughter?" "He is a man of remarkable ability," she explains to her daughter; "in some lights there is a decided richness in his hue." "I need not say what an escape I think she has had from that black man," she adds a few minutes later, when Lord Frank has declared himself. In every one of the many trying circumstances in which we encounter her, Lady Broadhem is grand and original. Mr. Oliphant has kept entirely clear of that vulgar folly sometimes to be found where we should least expect it, which introduces sketches of actual personages by way of giving life to the dead and blank story-spinning which pretends to be fiction. Lady Broadhem is Lady Broadhem, and no other. She is complete and characteristic in every point—a distinct creature; and, curiously enough, though she is worldly and cunning to the highest, or rather to the meanest, degree, utterly unscrupulous in the means she uses, and actually employing religion as a way to social and other eminence, it is impossible to hate her, or to refrain from a certain sympathy with her amazing cleverness and wealth of resource.

Were we about to treat Piccadilly simply as a work of art, it would be easy to enlarge upon the power of the conception, the wonderful ease and vigour with which the whole is treated; the knowledge of life at once in its ordinary and extraordinary developments which we find in every page. Had, indeed, the book been without that religious meaning which gives it its greatest charm, its singular ability would no doubt have procured its more general appreciation by the public, who can better understand even the fine and pointed satire which goes over the heads of the common crowd, than they can understand those motives which to the sober mind of respectable church-going folk, satisfied with just enough religion to keep them comfortable, cannot but look overstrained and extraordinary. As it is, the deeper significance which lies underneath is apt to confuse the reader in his perception of the amazing vividness and force of talent in these social sketches. There is not a stupid page in the whole volume. Every character is distinct and sharply outlined, and full of restrained power and humour. Even when we look at the subordinate personages in the drama, nothing can be more instinct at once with insight and with force than the outline of Mr. Wog, the American capitalist who has "struck lie," and has come to England to make notes on the aristocracy for the benefit of his countrymen. And the scenes in the City with Spiffey Goldtip's wonderful negotiations and secret diplomatic service between the two grand yet contrasting rival powers of Money and Society, are wonderful in the vigour of their revelations. This is not the sort of thing we are used to in books that have a religious meaning. Perhaps, indeed, it might be said that the book, as a work of art, suffers by the meaning that is in it, as well as that its undercurrent of deep and serious thought is subject to misconception in consequence of the wonderful brilliancy of the secular matter which accompanies and is wound in with it. The two qualities injure each other so far as common favour and understanding go. But in a higher sense—as an exposition of the way in which religious feeling affects the educated and refined and elevated intelligence of the nineteenth century; of how it works, betraying on every side the hollowness of artificial life, the sins of civilisation, the aching misery of contrast between all that is and all that ought to be—this book is unique in modern literature. We do not remember the time when any such voice has been raised before to point out to gentle and semple, churchman and layman, the amazing difference between faith and practice, or rather between the professions of faith made by Christendom, and the actual life lived by the kingdoms and societies that are included under that title. "It seems to me quite the best sermon that has been written for a long time," says a distinguished preacher, himself one of the most influential religious teachers of the day; "and it is a comfort to know that there is some one who will hit hard and not care." When we glance aside at the real motive of the book, we are stayed in our applause of the wit, the talent, the power of observation, and insight into character, which appear on every page. Not this, we are sure, is the appreciation the author...

(The entire section is 14490 words.)

The Athenaeum (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: A review of Altiora Peto, in The Athenaeum, Vol. 2, No. 2913, August 25, 1883, pp. 231-32.

[In the following review, the critic examines the characters in Altiora Peto and comments on the work as social satire.]

In Altiora Peto, as in Piccadilly, Mr. Oliphant presents himself to the novel-reading world as one made up of equal parts of theosophist and social cynic, mystic and man of the world, the student of earthly character and manners and the student of divine mysteries. He has an abundance of wit, great knowledge of men and women and society, and as much of the satirical habit—the tendency to attack with laughter, and to make...

(The entire section is 2837 words.)

the Spectator (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: A review of Altiora Peto, in The Spectator, Vol. 56, No. 2881, September 15, 1883, pp. 1190-91.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic praises Altiora Peto as a "brilliant picture of life and manners. ']

A writer in the last number of the Quarterly Review expresses tart dissatisfaction with the present state of criticism in England. It has fallen, he asserts, for the most part, into the hands of novices and pen-weary hacks, and they manage things much better in France. They manage things very differently in France, for literary criticism is practised there under conditions which differ toto coelo from those which obtain in...

(The entire section is 2520 words.)

The Saturday Review (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: A review of Altiora Peto, in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. 56, No. 1456, September 22, 1883, pp. 374-75.

[In the following article from the Saturday Review, the unsigned critic compares Altiora Peto with Piccadilly, and discusses Oliphant's views on humanism as revealed in the former.]

This story is one of the most entertaining that we have met with for a long time. It groups together a number of very varied human beings, all of whom are vividly, if lightly, drawn, and abounds in pleasant descriptions and smart sayings. The variety of the characters who are collected in it gives it something of the air of a menagerie; but in few...

(The entire section is 2254 words.)

E. Purcell (essay date 1883)

SOURCE: A review of Altiora Peto, in The Academy, Vol. XXIV, No. 597, October 13, 1883, p. 240.

[In the following excerpt, Purcell denigrates Oliphant's portrayal of American and European society in Altiora Peto.]

Piccadilly had just enough of sketchy carelessness and improbability to pass for originality, and to lead many people into thinking that the author could do much greater things if he liked. How far Aitiora Peto has complicated or dispelled this notion it is impossible to say, though it is said to have been favourably received. We are, therefore, the more bound to confess at once that we have found it entirely dull and uninteresting, both...

(The entire section is 1372 words.)

The Athenaeum (essay date 1887)

SOURCE: A review of Episodes in a Life of Adventure, in The Athenaeum, Vol. 2, No. 3117, July 23, 1887, pp. 107-08.

[In the following review from The Athenaeum, the unsigned critic describes Oliphant's travels in the decade following the Crimean War, which Oliphant chronicles in Episodes in a Life of Adventure.]

Mr. Oliphant has collected the charming autobiographical sketches which have recently appeared in Blackwood under the title 'Moss from a Rolling Stone,' and published them, with certain additions, as Episodes in a Life of Adventure. Few men have had such varied experience of life in the Old World and the New; and we know of no other...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)

The Critic (essay date 1888)

SOURCE: "Laurence Oliphant and His New Book," in The Critic, New York, n. s. Vol. IX, No. 233, June 16, 1888, pp. 289-90.

[In the following review of Scientific Religion, the critic discusses Oliphant's life and his responses to detractors.]

A new Timon of Athens, if we are to take him at his own estimate, is among us in the person of Mr. Laurence Oliphant. Timon is never very complimentary to his fellow-creatures, nor do they in turn easily forgive the hand that ruthlessly lays bare their frailties and shouts them from the house-tops. Yet Mr. Oliphant has a very warm place in the hearts of many of these same fellow-creatures, and the sharp whip of criticism,...

(The entire section is 1451 words.)

Sara A. Underwood (essay date 1898)

SOURCE: "Laurence Oliphant's Sympneumata," in The Arena, Boston, Vol. XX, No. IV, October, 1898, pp. 526-34.

[In the following excerpt, British critic Sara Underwood discusses the spiritual ideals described in Sympneumata.]

In the future, when men shall know more of life's spiritual side than the majority of us can yet comprehend, the world will understand better the higher meaning of the lives of some men and women who have been accounted misled fanatics, deluded enthusiasts, or harmless maniacs. Such mystics as Joan of Arc, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Jacob Boehme, Balzac, and William Blake the poet-artist, are among the exceptional souls who, professing to have...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)

Herbert W. Schneider and George Lawton (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "The Pneuma and the Breath," in A Prophet and a Pilgrim: Being the Incredible History of Thomas Lake Harris and Laurence Oliphant, Columbia University Press, 1942, pp. 388-403.

[Herbert W. Schneider is a professor emeritus who writes extensively with George Lawton on philosophy and religion. In the following excerpt, they describe Oliphant's theories of spirituality as presented in Sympneumata and Scientific Religion.]

The Oliphant version of counterpartal theory was contained in two books: Sympneumata; or, Evolutionary Forces Now Active in Man; and Scientific Religion; or, Higher Possibilites of Life and Practice through the Operaton of...

(The entire section is 5862 words.)

Philip Henderson (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "'Piccadilly'," in The Life of Laurence Oliphant: Traveller, Diplomat and Mystic, Robert Hale Limited, 1956, pp. 124-42.

[Philip Henderson was an English man of letters known for his studies of Christopher Marlowe and other English literary figures. In the following excerpt, he traces the development of Oliphant's satirical voice in Piccadilly, Oliphant's commentary on Victorian high society.]

It was while writing for The Owl that Oliphant discovered the satirical gift he … employed to such good effect in Piccadilly. As a member of Lady Palmerston's Cambridge House circle, he had every opportunity for observing the manners of high...

(The entire section is 1626 words.)

Further Reading


Dearden, Seton. "Laurence Oliphant." The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 169, No. 1009, (Autumn, 1956): 1-32.

Sketch of Oliphant's life, detailing his marriage and his involvement with the religious cult led by Thomas Lake Harris.

Fairbairn, Evelina. "Laurence Oliphant." The Westminster Review, Vol. CXXXVII, (Jan-June, 1892): 498-512.

Biographical sketch, including a discussion of Oliphant's early years as a travel writer.

Taylor, Anne. Laurence Oliphant, 1829-1888. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, 293 p.

Critical biography of Oliphant.


(The entire section is 101 words.)