Margaret (Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant Essay - Critical Essays

Oliphant, Margaret (Oliphant Wilson)


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.

*Principal Works

Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland of Sunnyside (novel) 1849

Caleb Field: A Tale of the Puritans (novel) 1851

Merkland: A Story of Scottish Life (novel) 1851

Katie Stewart: A True Story (novel) 1853

Magdalen Hepburn: A Story of the Scottish Reformation (novel) 1854

Lilliesleaf Being a Concluding Series of Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland (novel) 1855

The Athelings: Or, The Three Gifts (novel) 1857

The Days of My Life (autobiography) 1857

The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Scotch Church (biography) 1862

**The Rector, and the Doctor's Family (novel) 1863

**Salem Chapel (novel) 1863

**The Perpetual Curate (novel) 1864

**Miss Marjoribanks (novel) 1866

Madonna Mary (novel) 1867 Francis of Assisi (biography) 1868

Historical Sketches of the Reign of George Second (biography) 1869

The Minister's Wife (novel) 1869

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

**Phoebe, Junior: A Last Chronicle of Carlingford (novel) 1876

A Beleaguered City (novel) 1880

The Literary History of England in the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century (history and criticism) 1882

A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (novel) 1882

Hester (novel) 1883

The Ladies Lindores (novel) 1883

The Wizard's Son (novel) 1884

Lady Car: The Sequel of a Life (novel) 1889

Kirsteen: A Story of a Scottish Family Seventy Years Ago (novel) 1890

A Memoir of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and of Alice Oliphant, His Wife (biography) 1891

The Victorian Age of English Literature [with Francis Roman Oliphant] (history and criticism) 1892

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

The Ways of Life: Two Stories ["Mr. Sandford"; "Mr. Robert Dalyell"] (short stories) 1897

That Little Cutty, and Two Other Stories ["Dr. Barrère"; "Isabel Dysart"] (short stories) 1898

A Widow's Tale, and other Stories With an Introductory Note by J. M. Barrie (short stories) 1898

The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant Arranged and Edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill (autobiography and letters) 1899

Stories of the Seen and the Unseen ["The Open Door"; "Old Lady Mary"; "The Portrait"; "The Library Window"] (short stories) 1902

The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant: The Complete Text [edited by Elisabeth Jay] (autobiography) 1990

*Many of Oliphant's works were first published serially in periodicals.

**These works are collectively referred to as the Chronicles of Carlingford.

***The third and final volume of this work was completed by Mary Porter in 1898.


Valentine Cunningham (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Oliphant and the Tradition," in Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel, Clarendon Press, 1975, pp. 231-48.

[In the following essay, Cunningham surveys Oliphant's treatment of Scottish and English dissent. Although the critic finds Oliphant better able to present the situation in her homeland than in England, she argues that, overall, Oliphant 's work suffers from a lack of "originality and imaginative engagement," and calls her fiction "simplified" and "trivial."]

Are you, then, so eager to return to Scott,
who never seems to have suffered from writer's cramp?
George Moore to...

(The entire section is 7288 words.)

R. C. Terry (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Queen of Popular Fiction: Mrs. Oliphant and the Chronicles of Carlingford," in Victorian Popular Fiction, 1860-80, Macmillan Press, 1983, pp. 68-101.

[In the following overview of the Chronicles of Carlingford, Terry discusses Oliphant as a "striking example" of the Victorian popular novelistbased on her talent and enormous outputand asserts that the Carlingford novels comprise her best work, without which readers would have an incomplete record of mid-Victorian fiction.]

I might have done better work. . . . Who can tell? I did with much labour what I thought the best, and there is only a might...

(The entire section is 13896 words.)

Jennifer Uglow (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Introduction to Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life by Mrs. Oliphant, Virago, 1984, pp. ix-xxi.

[In the following introduction to Hester (1883), Uglow discusses the novel's themes of loneliness, employment, finances, and male-female relationships, and how these motifs reflect the realities of Oliphant's own life and the values of the Victorian era.]

Hester is a witty, ironic, forceful tale of women who run their lives either by choice or by necessity without the support of men—fatherless girls, old maids, widows, domineering sisters. But being alone, as its author knew, is not the same as being independent, and all the women in...

(The entire section is 4261 words.)

Elisabeth Jay (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant: The Complete Text, edited and introduced by Elisabeth Jay, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. vii-xvii.

[In the following introduction to a new edition of Oliphant's Autobiography (based on the original manuscript), Jay suggests that this new work allows modern readers the chance to understand the intense relationship Oliphant felt between the act of writing and the personal and financial needs that inspired it.]

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant, whose curious name derived from marrying a cousin on her mother's side of the family, was born on 4 April 1828 in Wallyford, Midlothian, and died in...

(The entire section is 4156 words.)

Joseph H. O'Mealy (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks, and the Victorian Canon," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 82, Fall, 1992, pp. 44-49.

[In the essay that follows, O'Mealy argues in favor of placing Oliphant within the Victorian literary canon. As evidence, the critic focuses on the novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), claiming that "its ambivalent ironies, beautifully controlled and surprisingly directed, demonstrate a high degree of literary sophistication."]

John Sutherland's magisterial Companion to Victorian Fiction (which synopsizes 554 novels and gives brief notes on 878 novelists) warns against accepting the "Lilliputian dimensions" (1) of our current...

(The entire section is 5732 words.)

Margarete Rubik (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Marriage," in The Novels of Mrs. Oliphant: A Subversive View of Traditional Themes, Peter Lang Publishing, 1994, pp. 169-95.

[In the following essay, Rubik discusses Oliphant's treatment of marriage in her novels, finding her skeptical of marital happiness and often presenting an unromantic and unsentimental view of married life.]

1) Oliphant's Fundamental Attitude

The traditional happy ending to the Victorian novel consists of the lovers' marriage, after which the course of their lives no longer needs to be related since, it is at least implied, they live happy ever after. Oliphant, who, as we have seen, appreciated the advantages of...

(The entire section is 9845 words.)

Elisabeth Jay (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Woman and Her Art: An Assessment," in Mrs. Oliphant: 'A Fiction to Herself; A Literary Life, Clarendon Press, 1995, pp. 289-307.

[In the essay below, Jay, while presenting the history of Oliphant's literary reputation, outlines and comments on her various writing skills.]

I have so far discussed the particularities of Mrs Oliphant's life and work, rather in the manner she herself suggested when sketching the outlines of one of her own female characters:

Mrs Everard also was a widow. This fact acts upon the character like other great facts in life. It makes many and important modifications in the aspect of affairs. Life...

(The entire section is 10779 words.)

Linda Peterson (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Female Bildungsroman: Tradition and Revision in Oliphant's Fiction," in Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by D. J. Trela, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 66-89.

[In the following essay, Peterson examines Oliphant's experimentation with the form and content of the Victorian bildungsroman, focusing in particular on the Carlingford novels (1861-76), on Hester (1883), and on Kirsteen (1890).]

Modern critical discussions of Victorian bildungsroman distinguish sharply between male and female versions of the form. The male version, so standard distinctions suggest, uses a vocational...

(The entire section is 9295 words.)

Merryn Williams (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Feminist or Antifeminist? Oliphant and the Woman Question," in Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by D. J. Trela, Associated University Presses, 1995, pp. 165-79.

[In the essay below, Williams explores Oliphant's views on the women's movement of the mid-1860s, finding the author "a complex figure, typecast as antifeminist, yet concerned throughout her life with the problems of women."]

On 16 August 1866 Margaret Oliphant wrote to her publisher John Blackwood:

I send you a little paper I have just finished about Stuart Mill and his mad notion of the franchise for women. . . . Probably you will...

(The entire section is 6320 words.)

Further Reading


Colby, Vineta, and Robert A. Colby. The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Marketplace. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966, 281 p.

Detailed biography culled from Oliphant's Autobiography, her published works, and her numerous unpublished letters.

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

The first full-length study of Oliphant's life.


Clarke, John Stock. "Mrs. Oliphant's Unacknowledged Social Novels." Notes and...

(The entire section is 695 words.)