Margaret Oliphant Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Oliphant, Margaret 1828-1897

Scottish short story writer, novelist, essayist, biographer, and critic.

Margaret Oliphant was an extremely prolific and popular writer in her day, publishing almost a hundred novels as well as collections of short stories, many books of history, travel essays, and a biography. Many of her works are notable for their depiction of her native Scotland, though she travelled widely and is not exclusively a regional writer. Her female characters are often remarkable for their strength and independence, and in much of her work she satirized English society. Most of her fiction is long out of print and unavailable, but recent critical interest has brought about new editions of some of her novels and short stories. The works best known to modern readers are her stories of the supernatural, such as "The Library Window" and the novella The Beleaguered City.

Biographical Information

Margaret Oliphant was born Margaret Wilson in 1828 at Wallyford, Scotland. Her father was a customs official, and the family had two boys older than Margaret. Her father was a retiring and unsociable person, and Margaret was chiefly raised and educated by her mother. She was not allowed many amusements besides reading, and developed into a serious and responsible young person. Around the age of sixteen, Margaret's mother became ill, and Margaret began to write as something to while away long hours in the sick-room. She completed a novel, which was appreciated by her mother, but was never published. By the time she was twenty, however, she had finished another novel, Margaret Maitland, which was promptly accepted and published by a London firm. This book was quite successful, and quickly ran into three editions.

It has often been assumed that Oliphant wrote so prolifically because she had dire financial need. Yet the day she finished Margaret Maitland she began a new novel—long before she knew her first book would be acclaimed and earn money. She seemed to have a voracious need to write. The fact that she could earn a living this way certainly encouraged her, but it was not the sole reason for her immense literary productivity. Nevertheless, her family soon began to depend on the income her writing brought. Her brother Willie drank and fell into debt as a student in London, and Margaret was dispatched to look after him. In London she met her cousin, Frank Oliphant, a painter and stained glass artisan, whom she married a few years later.

Oliphant moved to London with her husband, where her income from her novels chiefly supported them. She had three children in quick succession, but her second daughter died at eight months, and her third died shortly after birth. Oliphant's beloved mother also died around this time. She continued to write through these tragedies, and a little boy, Cyril, was born some years later. In the late 1850s her husband developed consumption, and his health rapidly declined. In an effort to save him, the family left for Italy in January, 1859. They took rooms in Florence, but were apparently shocked to find that Italy was not warm and sunny year round. Oliphant supported the family with money she earned from stories and essays she published in Blackwood's Magazine, a journal she would write for until the end of her life. By October it was clear her husband would not live. He died and was buried in Rome, where a few weeks later Oliphant gave birth to a son, Francis.

Now a widow with three children, it was absolutely necessary for Oliphant to write to support the family. She returned to England, where she conceived of a series of novels about country clerics, her Chronicles of Carlingford. These novels were enormously successful, and are still considered among her finest works. On a trip to Italy in 1864, her oldest child, her daughter Maggie, died suddenly of a short illness. Oliphant's burdens only increased after this tragedy. Her brother Frank's wife died, and Oliphant took over the support of his family of three children. In spite of precarious finances, she determined to send her sons to the best schools. They went to Eton and Oxford, while their mother wrote unceasingly. In 1877 Oliphant published three "three-decker" (three volume) novels as well as three academic books for a series for young people; the next year one three-decker, and in 1879 two threedeckers and a collection of short stories. Her industry never failed, though the work was not of uniformly high quality. Her two sons died young, their intellectual promise unfulfilled, and a nephew she had raised also died as a young man. After the tragic deaths of all these children, she began to write some of her most enduring works, fascinating stories of the supernatural. Her popularity was in decline at the end of her lifetime, as the three-decker form she had excelled at became outmoded. Yet she never stopped writing, and even on her death-bed was editing proofs of her two-volume history of Blackwood's publishing house.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Of Oliphant's 98 novels, few are consistently praised by modern critics. The novels of her early series, The Chronicles of Carlingford, are among her best. Miss Marjoribanks is especially noted for its sharp examination of social relations and its complex female characters. A late novel, Kirsteen, has often also been singled out by critics as an outstanding work of Victorian realism. The story of a Scottish woman, Kirsteen also exhibits Oliphant's deft depiction of her native region. But Oliphant is best known today for her novellas and short fiction that deal with "the unseen." Her novella A Beleaguered City caused a sensation when it was first published, and is still appealing to present-day readers. It tells the story of the town of Semur, in France, which is taken over by its dead residents. The ghosts expel the living, who are not sufficiently pious. The tale is remarkable for its atmosphere of mystery—the strange events of Semur are never categorically explained, but only hinted at by different narrators. A Beleaguered City is a spiritual story, suggesting that those who do not strive to discover "the true meaning of life" are living in sin and darkness. Yet the story is free from pat religious morals or sanctimonious pieties.

"The Library Window" and "Old Lady Mary" are two other highly respected ghost stories. "The Library Window" tells of a young girl who sees an image of a man writing through a window in an adjacent building. She cannot contact the man, and others convince her that the window is only a figment. "Old Lady Mary" tells of a selfish old woman whose whim to hide her will robs her ward of her inheritance. Lady Mary returns as a ghost, to try and rectify her misdeed, but she is unable to communicate with the living. Like many of Oliphant's supernatural stories, these show with great poignancy the barriers between the living and the dead. Another notable story of the afterlife is "The Land of Darkness." Oliphant's vision of Hell as an urban, industrial landscape prefigures Orwell and Huxley. Though the bulk of Oliphant's fiction is realistic, "The Land of Darkness" shows she had an extraordinary imaginative power as well.

Critical Reception

Oliphant was a popular and respected writer at the height of her career. Her novels, particularly her Chronicles of Carlingford, were well received. She was adept at the three-volume "triple decker" novel that was the staple of Victorian publishing. But by the end of her life, the triple decker form had practically disappeared, and Oliphant's writing was no longer the height of fashion. After her death, her fiction was mostly dismissed by critics as the work of a hack who wrote too quickly and too prolifically. This sentiment was passed down without much further examination until recent decades, when a few critics worked to bring some of her best stories and novels back into print, and to re-evaluate her career. The idea that Oliphant only wrote as much as she did because she had to support her family is one notion modern critics have unseated. Oliphant mentions several times her unquenchable need to write for its own sake. Contemporaries described her vivid intellect and sparkling energy, suggesting that she may have created just as much literature even if she had had no need for the income it brought. And though she was a popular writer, modern critics assert that her fiction shows little conformity to Victorian attitudes towards piety and sentimentality. Her female characters are often uniquely self-reliant and resourceful. Her supernatural tales, which are all available in modern editions, are highly regarded. After a long decline, Oliphant's reputation, at least in a limited academic circle, is on the rise. With reprints of her work now available, Oliphant may enjoy a small popular revival as well.