Laurence Oliphant Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.