Though better known as a novelist, Margaret Oliphant, one of the most prolific Victorian writers, was an influential critic and periodical essayist. Her articles appeared in a range of journals, including St. James’s Gazette, Cornhill Magazine, Contemporary Review, Fraser’s Magazine, and the Spectator.
However, it was her long association with Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that afforded her the most powerful platform. Over a period of more than 40 years from June 1854 to almost the end of her life Oliphant was Blackwood’s major literary reviewer, her critical output encompassing fiction, biography, history, religion, poetry, and works of reference. Less frequently she reviewed art exhibitions and the theater, while also publishing travel sketches, biographical essays, and social commentary. Her nonfiction books, particularly biographies and cultural histories, share some of the stylistic features of her periodical articles, but she did not seek to republish those essays in book form.
Oliphant’s productivity affected both her work and her reputation. In her lifetime she was irritated by any praise of what after her death was characterized as her “marvelous industry,” even though she herself described her position at Blackwood’s as a “sort of general utility woman in the Magazine” (Annals of a Publishing House, vol. 3, 1898).
She frequently had several pieces within one issue. Her descriptive sketches—sharpened by witty asides and her ability to conjure up an animated crowd scene, constantly switching perspective from the panoramic to the close-up—have a lively sense of ambience. Her work was usually produced at speed and is inevitably uneven in quality.
At its best it offers perceptive judgments of literature and a sharply observed assessment of her society. A vein of irony enlivens her commentary and often renders problematic what are on the surface conformist opinions.
Though more radical in her sympathies than the Tory Blackwood’s, Oliphant’s working relationship with John Blackwood proved successful professionally and socially.
Her readers were the educated, relatively conservative middle class, and she envisaged herself addressing a mainly masculine audience. Some critics argue that she adopted a male voice. Certainly she occasionally referred to herself as if to a man, and for one of her series of discursive commentaries (“The Old Saloon,” January 1887-December 1892) took on a persona writing from the distinctly male space of Blackwood’s original library; it should be noted, however, that she also wrote elsewhere under the sobriquet “A Dowager.” In many of her essays the writer’s sex is indeterminate. Blackwood’s policy of anonymity suited her, and she strongly maintained the advantage of anonymity for critics since it liberated them from “embarrassing difficulties” when discussing the work of acquaintances (“The Rev. W.Lucas Collins,” 1887).
Oliphant’s voice can be at once self-deprecatory and authoritative. Admitting her judgment to be “uninstructed” she yet delivers it in the magisterial first-person plural— “Speaking as one of the unlearned, a heathen man and a publican, we yet shudder at ourselves when we say…” (“London in January,” 1886). Her tone shifts between familiar alliance with the reader and formal discourse. Essays opening with an authoritative statement on the general then glide into the conversational or focus upon the particular.
So a literary review (“Sensation Novels,” 1862) is launched from the state of the nation: “Ten years ago the world in general had come to a singular crisis in its existence. The age was lost in self-admiration.” Her review essays give scope for broad discussion of cultural trends, commonly covering works by diverse authors or an assessment of a writer’s oeuvre, dealing with different branches of the arts, or, like “The Literature of the Last Fifty Years” (1887), offering a retrospective assessment.
It is unfortunate that Oliphant’s critical capabilities are today often characterized by her negative view of Jude the Obscure (“The Anti-Marriage League,” 1896). The distinctive, acerbic tone of her writing makes her an easy target for selective quotation, but as some scholars have recently urged, her views are more complex than such quotations suggest. Even where she regarded a subgenre as having a vitiating influence, as she did with both the sensational novel, whose Count Fosco and Magdalens “make the worse appear the better cause” (“Sensation Novels”), and the fiction of the “alarming revolution” following “the invasion of Jane Eyre,” she praised genius where she found it. Wilkie Collins she rated highly and Jane Eyre she considered “one of the most remarkable works of modern times” (“Modern Novelists, Great and Small,” 1855; see also “The Sisters Brontë,” 1897).
Equally, her views on the Woman Question, which have been regarded as conservative, even antifeminist, cannot be accurately gauged from the antisuffrage remarks in the earlier essays (“Laws Concerning Women,” 1856; “The Condition of Women,” 1858; “The Great Unrepresented,” 1866). Oliphant did not trust the power of the law to right women’s wrongs, and maintained the importance and dignity of a mother’s responsibilities; but she approved of education for women, and over the decades modified her opinions (e.g. “The Grievances of Women,” 1880). In her review of the novel Ideala (“The Old Saloon,” 1889) she referred sympathetically to “the singular and scarcely recognised revolution which has taken place in the position of women during the last generation.”
Oliphant’s commentaries on the visual arts emphasized a society which creates and consumes art as much as the art itself. The value of making art accessible to the people as a whole, the dangers of private patronage, the role of the gallery in national life, the relationship of art to commercial interests, and the effects of industrialization and social change, were constant themes (e.g. “Art in May,” 1875; “The Royal Academy,” 1876).
Oliphant’s own art was produced, not in a quiet study, or cloistered library, but amid the reality of everyday domestic life. This sense of commonplace experience colored her theory of the arts. Thus her notion of the tragic was integrally linked to the idea of disillusionment in ordinary life. “Hamlet is the greatest instance of that disenchantment… about the bitterest pang of which the soul is capable” (“Hamlet,” 1879).
Blackwood’s effusive obituary tribute—“the most accomplished periodical writer of her day”—indicates Oliphant’s contemporary influence in that genre, an influence which modern critics are now reassessing.
BARBARA MARY ONSLOW
Born Margaret Oliphant Wilson, 4 April 1828 in Wallyford, Midlothian. As a child lived in Lasswade, near Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Liverpool. No formal education. Published her first novel, 1849. Married Francis Wilson Oliphant (a cousin), 1852 (died, 1859): two daughters (one died in infancy, the other in youth) and four sons (two died in infancy, two in adulthood). Moved to London, 1852. Contributor to various journals, primarily Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, from 1854. Traveled to Italy for her husband’s health, 1859; moved to Edinburgh, 1860, Ealing, London, 1861, and Italy, Switzerland, and France, 1863–65; lived in Windsor, Berkshire, from 1865. From 1868 her brother Frank and his family became increasingly dependent on her financially. Traveled to Jerusalem, 1890. Moved to Wimbledon, south London, 1896. Died in Wimbledon, 25 June 1897.
Essays and Related Prose (Most of Oliphant’s essays have not yet been published in book form.)
Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II, 2 vols., 1869
Historical Sketches of the Reign of Queen Anne, 1894; as Historical Characters, 1894
Other writings: many novels, biography, an autobiography, and a history of
Blackwood’s publishing house.
Clarke, John Stock, Margaret Oliphant: A Bibliography, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Department of English, 1986
Houghton, Walter E., editor, The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824–1900,
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 5 vols., 1966–89: “Bibliographies of
Contributors” lists Oliphant’s essays and criticism in those periodicals covered by the index
Colby, Robert A., and Vineta Colby, “Mrs. Oliphant’s Scotland: The Romance of Reality,” in Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction, edited by Ian Campbell, Manchester: Carcanet, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979:89–104
Colby, Vineta, and Robert A.Colby, The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1966
Jay, Elisabeth, Mrs. Oliphant: “A Fiction to Herself”: A Literary Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
Kramer, Dale, “The Cry That Binds: Oliphant’s Theory of Domestic Tragedy,” in Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by D.J. Trela, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1995:147–64
Trela, D.J., “Two Margaret Oliphants Review George Eliot,” George Eliot—George Henry Lewes Studies (September 1993): 37–60
Trela, D.J., “Introduction: Discovering the Gentle Subversive,” in Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by Trela, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1995:11–27
Williams, Merryn, Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography, Basingstoke: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986
Williams, Merryn, “Feminist or Anti-Feminist? Oliphant and the Woman Question,” in Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive, edited by D.J.Trela, Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1995:165–80
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