Margaret Oliphant Essay - Critical Essays

Oliphant, Margaret


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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland 1849

The Rector and the Doctor's Family [Chronicles of Carlingford series] 1863

A Beleaguered City and Other Stories 1879

The Two Mrs. Scudamores 1879

Two Stories of the Seen and the Unseen 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

Other Major Works

Katie Stewart (novel) 1853

The Athelings; or, The Three Gifts (novel) 1857

Chronicles of Carlingford (novel series): Salem Chapel 1863; The Perpetual Curate 1864; Miss Marjoribanks 1866; Phoebe, Junior 1876

A Son of the Soil (novel) 1865

The Minister's Wife (novel) 1869

The Three Brothers (novel) 1870

Memoirs of the Count de Montalembert: A Chapter of Recent French History (biography) 1872

The Curate in Charge (novel) 1876

The Makers of Florence: Dante, Giotto, Savonarola, and their City (history) 1876

A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (novel) 1882

It Was a Lover and His Lass (novel) 1883

The Wizard's Son (novel) 1883

The Makers of Venice: Doges, Conquerors, Painters, and Men of Letters (history) 1887

Kirsteen. The Story of a Scottish Family Seventy Years Ago (novel) 1890

The Heir Presumptive and the Heir Apparent (novel) 1891

Jerusalem, the Holy City: Its History and Hope (history) 1891

The Railway Man and His Children (novel) 1891

Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons, Their Magazine and Friends. 2 vols. (history) 1897

The Autobiography and Letters [edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill] 1899; revised edition 1899; The Autobiography [edited by Elizabeth Jay] (autobiography) 1990


Vineta and Robert A. Colby (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Seen and the Unseen," in The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Marketplace, Archon Books, 1966, pp. 88-107.

[In this excerpt, Vineta and Robert Colby review the varied qualities of Oliphant's supernatural tales.]

Early in her career, in her novels and in her biography of Irving, Mrs. Oliphant had revealed a sympathy for the visionary mystic, the prophet without honor in his country—just such a figure as is represented in the tragic Paul Lecamus of A Beleaguered City. Her study of Montalembert brought her into contact with the French monastic revival, the continental counterpart of the Oxford Movement. The interest she...

(The entire section is 7818 words.)

Douglas Gifford (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Introduction to Scottish Short Stories, 1800-1900, edited by Douglas Gifford, Calder & Boyars, 1971, pp. 12-13.

[In the following excerpt, Gifford gives a brief analysis of "The Library Window. "]

Margaret Oliphant's "The Library Window" is a deceptively slight story. At first it seems close to James's Turn of the Screw in method; but it becomes even more disturbing and demoniac on reflection, and its links are rather with the ambiguity of Wandering Willie's Tale or Hogg's frequent tales with dual interpretations.

On one level, it is almost a modern version of the good fairy, bad fairy tales; with Aunt Mary set against Lady...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Robert and Vineta Colby (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Oliphant's Scotland: The Romance and the Reality," in Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction, edited by Ian Campbell, Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, pp. 89-103.

[In this essay, Robert and Vineta Colby discuss Oliphant's mission to educate her readers to the ways of Scottish life in her stories and novels.]

The wandering Scot, patriotic and energetic, pushing his fortunes at the ends of the earth, canny and practical, yet moved always by the memory of his old home, is a familiar figure in the real life of experience and in the imaginary life of literature.

Lionel Johnson, "R. L. Stevenson",


(The entire section is 6950 words.)

Margaret K. Gray (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Introduction to Selected Short Stories, by Margaret Oliphant, edited by Margaret K. Gray, Scottish Academic Press, 1985, pp. vii-xii.

[In the following excerpt, Gray explains Oliphant's conception of evil in relation to her supernatural tales.]

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant was born on 4 April 1828 in the small village of Wallyford, East Lothian, the youngest of the three surviving children of six born to the Wilson family; she died on 25 June 1897 in Wimbledon. In almost half a century of literary production Mrs Oliphant published ninety-three novels, at least thirty-six short stories, several biographies and histories—notably Annals of a Publishing...

(The entire section is 2261 words.)

Gerald Mangan (review date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Earthy and the Unearthly," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,349, August 8, 1986, p. 870.

[In this review of Selected Short Stories, Mangan finds the stories sometimes interesting and probing, though the prose is often padded.]

During a career spanning almost half a century, Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) published a prodigious body of fiction which included, among ninety or so other novels, The Chronicles of Carlingford and Kirsteen. In her introduction to six of Oliphant's supernatural tales, Margaret K. Gray portrays a strong-willed literary workhorse, widowed in her youth, who was obliged to support a family of ailing and feckless...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Forward Into the Past," in No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 172-73.

[In this excerpt, Gilbert and Gubar explore the theme of the "literary father" in Oliphant's story "The Library Window. "]

In 1896, Mrs. Margaret Oliphant published a semi-autobiographical Gothic fantasy that seems to define the literary father as no more than a ghostly precursor. "The Library Window" recounts the obsession of an imaginative young woman with a hallucinatory male figure whom she thinks she glimpses in the window of a men's college across the road from the home of some relatives she is visiting. Night and...

(The entire section is 351 words.)

Esther H. Schor (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Haunted Interpreter in Margaret Oliphant's Supernatural Fiction," in Women's Studies, Vol. 22, No. 3, 1993, pp. 372-86.

[In this excerpt, Schor compares A Beleaguered City and the story "Earthbound," finding that each uses the confrontation with the supernatural as a metaphor for reading and interpretation.]

In this essay, I will consider two of Oliphant's supernatural fictions from the late 1870s as highly experimental narratives about interpretation. In both "Earthbound" and A Beleaguered City, the encroachment of the Unseen on the Seen causes an interpretive crisis. While Oliphant's haunted interpreters enact our task as readers by...

(The entire section is 6663 words.)

Elisabeth Jay (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "A Scottish Widow's Religious Speculations," in Mrs. Oliphant: 'A Fiction to Herself,' Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 157-68.

[In this excerpt, Jay asserts that Oliphant's supernatural tales challenged Victorian constructions of gender.]

It was in the world of fancy, or fantasy, in her Stories of the Seen and the Unseen, in the liminal spaces between the here and the hereafter, in the uncharted regions of the hereafter itself, that Mrs Oliphant discovered a place to ponder further upon irresolvable paradoxes and genderrelated confusions. These uncolonized spaces permitted an indirectness of approach that itself proves disruptive of reader expectation. Within...

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Further Reading


Stebbins, Lucy Poate. "Margaret Oliphant." In A Victorian Album: Some Lady Novelists of the Period, pp. 155-91. New York: Columbia University Press, 1946.

A complete and readable biographical essay, offering a conventional picture of the lady novelist.

Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. London: Macmillan Press, 1986, 217 p.

The first full biography of Oliphant.


Dickerson, Vanessa D. "Angels, Money, and Ghosts: Victorian Female Writers of the Supernatural." In Gender, Culture, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by...

(The entire section is 185 words.)