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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

Margaret Oliphant is known as a domestic and regional writer dealing with everyday life in Victorian England, as is displayed in her multivolume Chronicles of Carlingford (1862). Her corpus of ghost stories displays the versatility and imaginativeness of her vision and enhances her importance as a writer. A Beleaguered City ...

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Margaret Oliphant is known as a domestic and regional writer dealing with everyday life in Victorian England, as is displayed in her multivolume Chronicles of Carlingford (1862). Her corpus of ghost stories displays the versatility and imaginativeness of her vision and enhances her importance as a writer. A Beleaguered City, her most famous ghost story, is significant in the history of fantasy and science fiction because of its use of the techniques of speculative fiction to explore issues that traditionally have been the domain of religion.

Oliphant sets this atypical story in a foreign country, France. Perhaps this enabled her to achieve an effect of distance and remoteness necessary for the story’s weird atmosphere. With subtlety and skill, Oliphant paints a detailed portrait of the complacent, bourgeois city of Semur, where people stroll around thinking that they have mastered all the dilemmas of the universe, or at least are able to ignore them. The manifestation of the returned dead shows that rational waking thought cannot master the overwhelming mysteriousness of the cosmos. The return of the dead may be explained in psychological terms as a collective hallucination that displays the town’s own repression of its buried unconscious, whether this repression can be traced to the town’s own bourgeois self-satisfaction or to its participation in the general French malaise after the trauma of the war with Germany.

Oliphant does not use her ghostly spectacle simply to proffer a grim warning to modernity that it has strayed too far from tradition and needs a grim retrenchment back to orthodox pieties in order to solve its problems. Instead, she sees the returned dead as a challenge that each citizen of Semur addresses in unique personal terms. From the orthodox Curé to the rationalist mayor to the independently mystical Lecamus, each person relates to the returned dead in specific personal terms. By illustrating how different individuals would respond to such a crisis, Oliphant creates a haunting and eerie but emotionally realistic tableau.

The returned dead of Semur may be unsettling but are not necessarily frightening. They perturb and intrigue but do not shock or horrify. They present less a vision of grisly secrets than of previously unknown possibilities. Particularly for Dupin’s grieving wife and the stricken Lecamus, the revelation that the dead can return to Earth provides a foundation for hope. Perhaps, they conclude, the endings life seems to give are not necessarily final.

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