Margaret (Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Margaret (Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant 1828-1897

(Born Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Scottish novelist, biographer, short story writer, translator, and critic.

For additional information on Oliphant's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 11.

A prolific writer who was extremely popular in her day, Oliphant is now remembered primarily for her novels depicting English and Scottish provincial life, for her inventive narrative style, and for her independent and resourceful female characters. Of her large body of works, the Chronicles of Carlingford, a series of five novels that records life in a small English town, is perhaps her best known.

Biographical Information

Born in Wallyford,. Scotland, to a customs officer and his wife, Oliphant was the youngest of three children. Her mother was the dominant figure in the Wilson household; she taught Margaret to read and write and instilled in her an appreciation for Scottish lore that is evident in many of Oliphant's early works. Her later writings often reflect the contrasting personalities of her parents: her female characters tend to be strong and determined, while many of her male characters appear weak and indecisive.

In 1849, Oliphant and her brother William moved to London, where she anonymously published her first three novels, Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland of Sunnyside (1849), Caleb Field (1851), and Merkland (1851). All three were immensely popular portrayals of early nineteenth-century Scottish history, provincial life, and culture. In 1852, she married her cousin Francis Oliphant, a prominent artist. The first years of Oliphant's marriage were clouded with misfortune: she nursed her mother during a fatal illness, and two of her children died in early infancy. In addition, her husband's stained glass business faltered, and in 1859 he contracted tuberculosis. In a futile attempt to forestall the disease, he moved the family to Rome; he died, however, within several months. Oliphant, the mother of two young children and pregnant with a third, waited until the birth of her child and then, already heavily in debt, borrowed money from her publisher, William Blackwood, for her return to England.

In the early years of her marriage and during her stay in Italy, Oliphant wrote prolifically, contributing historical, biographical, and critical essays to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Upon her return to England, however, she found that much of her output was rejected by the periodical. Struggling to support her family and repay Blackwood for advances on her unwritten work, Oliphant conceived the plan for the Chronicles of Carlingford. The series was a popular and financial success, yet Oliphant's lifestyle was extravagant, and her expenses continued to exceed her income. She returned to Italy in 1864 and continued to write despite continuing personal tragedy, including the deaths of her daughter, two sons, and one of her nephews. In the last years of her life, she began writing stories that dealt with the supernatural. Among the most popular of these works were A Beleaguered City (1880) and A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (1882). Oliphant also produced several historical studies, including The Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (1882) and Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons, Their Magazine and Friends (1897). In a preface to her last work, The Ways of Life: Two Stories (1897), Oliphant commented that she had lost much of her early enthusiasm and had little interest in presenting a positive, romantic view of life to her readers. Although she continued to write prolifically until her death in 1897, her last works, which reflect this change in outlook, are not considered among her best productions.

Major Works

As the author of numerous contributions to nineteenth-century periodicals and nearly one hundred novels, Oliphant enjoyed popular success throughout her career. She is remembered primarily for her novels, which contain realistic characters, imaginative depictions of Scottish life, and a blend of humor and pathos. Mrs. Margaret Maitland, Katie Stewart (1853), and Kirsteen (1890), perhaps the best examples of Oliphant's Scottish stories, are especially praised for their female characters, who are resourceful, intelligent, and determined. Some critics now regard Kirsteen as one of her best works, depicting as it does an unmarried woman who, driven from home by her domineering father, successfully establishes herself in a profitable and independent career. In the Chronicles of Carlingford, the five-novel series that is her best-known work, Oliphant sympathetically portrayed the nineteenth-century conflict between the Protestant Church of England and the re-emerging Roman Catholic Church. In the first two novels, she examined the internal conflicts of Carlingford's young clergy, while in the final two volumes of the series, Miss Marjoribanks and Phoebe Junior (1876), Oliphant concentrated more extensively on the townspeople.

Critical Reception

While many of her works enjoyed popularity during her lifetime, Oliphant's reputation diminished dramatically early in the twentieth century. Although her fiction was praised for its realistic and memorable characters, many critics suggested that, despite her wide popularity in the nineteenth century, the rapid production and sheer volume of Oliphant's writings prevented her from composing any work of lasting literary distinction. However, this judgment is being revised. Most readers now suggest that those who criticize her for creating heroines that do not take a stronger stand on women's issues have misunderstood her careful use of irony. Critics have pointed out, too, her profound understanding of gender roles and her skillful subversion of Victorian literary conventions, abilities which are employed in varying degrees of expertise in her vast literary output. Commentators have also praised her skill in the genres of biography and literary historical criticism, noting her accuracy in revealing the practices and values of Victorian culture and suggesting that the total impact of her writings had the effect of helping to educate the expanding English readership. While Oliphant may not have achieved the enduring fame enjoyed by some of her contemporaries, her reputation as a skillful story teller who created memorable portraits of strong, capable women can now be augmented by the growing recognition of her technical and critical abilities.