Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Oliphant, Margaret Oliphant

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OLIPHANT, MARGARET OLIPHANT (1828–1897), novelist and historical writer, born at Wallyford, near Musselburgh, on 4 April 1828, was daughter of Francis Wilson and his wife, Margaret Oliphant. George Wilson (1818–1859) [q. v.] and Sir Daniel Wilson [q. v.] were her father's second cousins. Her first recollections were of Lasswade, near Edinburgh, next of Glasgow, where her father carried on some business, and then of Liverpool, where he had an appointment in the customs. He appears to have been of a reserved disposition and singularly indifferent to his family. Her mother, on the other hand, was energetic, eager, and sarcastic, and her daughter recognised a strong resemblance in her to Mrs. Carlyle, when she came to know the latter in later years. After a while the family removed to Birkenhead. Both parents were devoted to the Scottish free church movement, which occurred when Mrs. Oliphant was fifteen, and the consequent discussions stimulated her faculties and tended to inspire her first; book, 'Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland' (1849). Later in life she regretted 'its foolish little polemics,' but it is a surprising work for an authoress of twenty-one. Notwithstanding the obstacle of the lowland dialect, it was highly successful Colburn, who, to the author's surprise, had promptly accepted it, giving her 150l. upon its attaining the third edition. 'Caleb Field,' her next novel (1851), attracted comparatively little notice, but 'Merkland,' published in the same year, was a great success, and continues to rank among her best novels. She came to London about this time to look after an unsatisfactory brother, and on 4 May 1852 married at Birkenhead her cousin, Francis Wilson Oliphant [q. v.], an artist, principally engaged in designing stained glass. They settled at Harrington Square, near the Hampstead Road, and Mrs. Oliphant began to be known in London literary society. Housekeeping expenses were for the time met by the alliance which she formed with Messrs. Blackwood; she was introduced to the firm by David Macbeth Moir [q. v.], and the connection continued unbroken all her life. Four novels from her pen successively appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine:' 'Katie Stewart' (1853), 'A Quiet Heart' (1854), 'Zaidee' (1856), and 'The Athelings' (1857). In the interim her parents had removed to London, where her mother died in September 1854; another brother had married and gone out to Canada (where his cousin Daniel Wilson had in 1853 been appointed professor of English literature at Toronto), an event destined to have momentous consequences for her; and a daughter and a son had been born to her. In January 1859 she was dismayed by the sudden failure of her husband's health. The case proved to be one of incurable consumption. It was necessary to break up the London establishment at a great sacrifice, and remove to Rome, where Oliphant died in October 1859. Three months later Mrs. Oliphant gave birth to a posthumous child a second son, who, with her elder son and her daughter, were through life to depend entirely on their mother's exertion. Mrs. Oliphant's circumstances at the time of her husband's death are thus summed up by herself: 'A thousand pounds of debt. Two hundred pounds insurance money. Some furniture warehoused. My faculties, such as they are.' They proved adequate to bring her 400l. for each novel, an amount soon greatly increased by the success of her series of four novels, entitled 'Chronicles of Carlingford,' three of which were published anonymously in 'Blackwood's Magazine' between 1862 and 1865. The earliest was 'Salem Chapel,' 1863, 2 vols.; and it was followed by 'The Rector and the Doctor's Family' (1863), 'The Perpetual Curate' (1864, new ed. 1865), and 'Miss Marjoribanks' (1866). The last of the series was published in 1876, and entitled 'Phoebe Junior: a last Chronicle of Carlingford.' These were frequently taken for the work of George Eliot, and although the more acute critics never fell into this error, the surface resemblance is very strong. The characters talk and behave very like George Eliot's, and with no less consistency and truth to nature, but the mind behind them is manifestly of less intellectual calibre. The authoress's versatility and quickness at taking a hint are evinced by her undoubtedly true assertion that, when writing 'Salem Chapel,' which was received as an oracle upon dissent, she knew nothing about chapels unconnected with the free church of Scotland. She must have studied George Eliot attentively, and probably Mrs. Gaskell also. Mr. Blackwood was so impressed by the success of 'Salem Chapel' that he voluntarily offered the authoress 1,500l. for 'The Perpetual Curate,' to the horror of his cashier. Another important work, in a different line, was Mrs. Oliphant's 'Life of Edward Irving' (2 vols. 1862, new ed. same year, 1864 and 1865), to write which she mingled with the Irvingites, who expected her to join them and were proportionately disappointed. Mrs. Oliphant was nevertheless too much of an Irvingite in the strictly personal sense to be entirely impartial; her account of Irving's courtships is defective; and it is amazing to find a biographer of him disclaiming both the obligation and the ability to express any opinion touching the phenomena of 'the tongues.' The great interest and freshness of the book arise in large measure from the employment of Irving's own words whenever possible.

Mrs. Oliphant, who, upon her return from Italy, had for a short time established herself at Edinburgh, was now living at Ealing, where she was visited by Jane Welsh Carlyle (Letters, iii. 164-5, 324-6, 334). In 1864 she went again to Rome, where she encountered one of the heaviest afflictions of her life in the death of her daughter. Returning in broken spirits she soon found, as she deemed, a new burden imposed upon her by the return of her widowed brother from Canada with three children. Without hesitation, she received them into her house, and took upon herself the entire charge of their education and maintenance a truly heroic action, which, so great were her energy and capacity for work, might not have overtaxed her if she had acted more wisely in the education of her own children. By attempting to bring them up at Eton, she involved herself in perpetual embarrassment: ever honourably redeeming obligations, and ever of necessity contracting new ones, she lived under a sense of continual distress and humiliation, all the more intolerable from the contrast between the externally bright and smooth aspect of her household, and the inner consciousness of its struggling mistress. Thus expensively and at the same time inefficiently educated, it is no wonder that the boys misunderstood their real position, formed no habits of self-help or self-reliance, and, almost obliged to enter upon university careers, where nothing but the highest talent and the most determined industry could have insured success, proved little better than broken reeds, though not absolutely bad sons. It is this disappointment, even more than their premature death, that casts so deep a gloom upon the autobiography of the successful authoress. The elder, Cyril Francis, lived to thirty-five, mainly upon his mother's resources; dying in 1890, he left nothing behind him but a 'Life of Alfred de Musset,' published in 1890 in his mother's 'Foreign Classics for English Readers.' The younger, Francis Romano, wrote a considerable part of a not very satisfactory 'Victorian Age of English Literature' (2 vols.), published under his and his mother's joint names in 1892, and shortly before his death in 1894 obtained an appointment in the British Museum, which he lost from inability to pass the medical test. Maternal anguish has seldom been more touchingly expressed than in Mrs. Oliphant's lamentations on her bereavements.

In 1866 Mrs. Oliphant removed to Windsor to be near her sons at Eton, and the rest of her life might have been described as slavery to the pen, if writing had not been a real enjoyment to her. She probably found relief in the visionary world of her creations from pecuniary cares and parental disappointments; assuredly she cannot have suffered herself to brood much over these. In addition to the constant stream of fiction, she took up biographical and semi-historical literature, producing such books as 'The Life of St. Francis of Assisi' (1871), 'The Makers of Florence' (1874; 2nd edit. 1877; 3rd edit. 1881), 'The Makers of Venice ' (1887), 'The Makers of Modern Rome' (1895), useful digests of information, brightened by her eye for the picturesque and her happy talent for describing scenery. She also took charge of two important undertakings in connection with her publisher, Mr. Blackwood, and his magazine. His series of monographs on foreign classics was edited by her, and for that series she wrote the volumes on Dante (1877) and Cervantes (1880). For 'Blackwood's Magazine' she long continued to review the literature of the day in monthly surveys, entitled 'Our Library Table.' Her criticisms, like most of her work, are excellent but not masterly. She is always shrewd, commonly well-informed, usually impartial, and knows how to make the review of even a dull book attractive by some bright touch of observation or scenic description. But she is rarely illuminating, never profound, and her criticism seldom does more than express the average sentiment of the most cultivated class of readers. Of her numerous later novels, while none stand quite at the height of 'Salem Chapel,' not one could be considered a failure. She gave little sign of having written herself out, and set an example, admirable but hard for voluminous authors to follow, of making no capital, either out of her own private affairs or those of her neighbours. 'The Wizard's Son' (1883) may perhaps have borne some reference to the uneasy relations between her mother and her husband. It counted among her best works; others worthy of especial mention were 'Agnes' (1866), 'Madonna Mary' (1867), 'Ombra' (1872), 'Innocent' (1873), 'Carita' (1877), 'Hester' (1883), and 'The Ladies Lindores' (1883). A remarkable class of her work was that dealing with the occult and unseen. A st rong element of mysticism found relief in such books as 'A Beleaguered City' (1880), founded on a mediaeval legend of a city invested and occupied by the dead, and 'A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen' (1882). There was quite as much sense of reality here as in her more everyday writings. The same feeling in some degree inspired her indulgent biography (1891) of her brilliant and eccentric cousin, Laurence Oliphant (1829-1891) [q. v.], and of the poor wife who had so much to endure from him. As in the case of her 'Life of Irving,' she succeeded well in biography whenever she could feel sympathetic. Her lives of Count Montalembert (1872), the statesman and thinker she admired, and whose 'History of the Monks of the West' she translated (1867-79, 7 vols.) ; of her intimate friend, Principal Tulloch (1888) ; and of Dr. Chalmers (1893), the hero of her youth, are excellent ; while her life in the 'Men of Letters' series of Sheridan (1883), a character entirely alien to her own, is the least satisfactory of her writings.

The principal events of Mrs. Oliphant's later years were a visit to the Holy Land in 1890 to collect materials for her 'Memoir of Laurence Oliphant and Alice Oliphant, his Wife' (1892). She also produced 'Jerusalem, its History and Hope ' (1891), and her two sons died respectively in 1890 and 1894. Bowed down by grief, she was not prostrated; she continued to write as formerly; and although in the preface to her last book, 'The Ways of Life' (1897), she touchingly hints an apprehension that she may have written herself out, the pair of stories it contains not, indeed, quite her most recent productions are quite upon her usual level. She was less successful with a more important undertaking, the history of the publishing house of Blackwood (1897, 2 vols.). Either her heart was not in the work or the mass of material overwhelmed her ; a third volume, added by an authoress of far inferior celebrity, is in every way superior. Her health was failing when, early in 1897, she undertook a journey to Siena with the view of writing a book, one chapter of which actually appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine' in July 1898. On her return she was evidently worse, and continued to sink until her death at Windsor on 25 June, retaining, however, such mental vigour to the last as to have written some spirited verses on the queen's jubilee a few days previously. She was buried at Eton on 29 June 1897. Her scattered tales were collected after her death, and published with a generous recognition of her supremacy as a delineator of Scottish life by a more modern master of the art, Mr. J. M. Barrie. Another posthumous publication, revealing her in a new light in many respects, was the melancholy autobiographic fragment, with its appendix of correspondence, published in 1899. Written under the influence of her sore bereavements, it naturally exhibits a depression which, considering the amount of work she performed, cannot have been habitual with her. It nevertheless shows what a hard life the brilliant and successful authoress had lived, and how severe the strain had been that had enabled her to meet the domestic and business obligations she had undertaken. It had been her destiny to live for and be lived upon by others, and, except as regarded the family she had so courageously adopted, to find disappointment in all the tenderest relations of life.

Most distinguished novelists who have not completely attained the highest rank have written themselves, so to speak, into form, passing through a period of apprenticeship before reaching a level which they have long retained, and ending by writing themselves out. Mrs. Oliphant's literary history is different. Totally inexperienced in composition, she began by a book which she never very greatly surpassed, and the end of her career found her almost as fresh as at the beginning. It seemed a natural criticism that she should have devoted herself to some concentrated effort of mind which would have placed herself in the front rank ; but the probability is that she made the best possible use of her powers. Her great gifts invention, humour, pathos, the power of bringing persons and scenes vividly before the eye could hardly have been augmented by any amount of study, and no study could have given her the incommunicable something that stamps the great author. She resembled the George Sand of George Sand's later period in her consummate ease of production, but she had never known the Frenchwoman's day of genius and enthusiasm. Her work as a biographer and compiler, which alone would have made a respectable reputation for many authors, was probably of service to her as a distraction from mental strain. Refreshed by a change of environment, she returned with new zest to 'my natural way of occupying myself,' as she described the composition of her fictions.

Mrs. Oliphant was the author of nearly a hundred separate publications, a full list of which and of her equally numerous contributions to 'Blackwood' is printed as an appendix to her 'Autobiography' (1899). The more important, besides those already mentioned, are: 1. 'Agnes Hopetoun's School,' 1859; new edits. 1872, 1880. 2. 'The House on the Moor,' 1860 ; new edit. 1876. 3. 'The Last of the Mortimers,' 1861 ; new edit. 1875. 4. 'Historical Sketches of the Reign of George the Second,' 1869 ; 3rd edit. 1875. 5. 'At His Gates,' 1872 ; new edit. 1885. 6. 'Whiteladies,' 1876; new edit. 1879. 7. 'Within the Precincts,' 1879; new edit. 1883. 8. 'The Literary History of England in the end of the Eighteenth and beginning of the Nineteenth Century,' 1882, 3 vols. 9. 'It was a Lover and his Lass,' 1883; new edit. 1884. 10. 'Royal Edinburgh,' 1891. 11. 'A. House in Bloomsbury,' 1894, 2 vols. 12. 'Sketches of the Reign of Queen Anne,' 1894. 13. 'A Child's History of Scotland,' 1896. 14. 'Jeanne d'Arc,' 1896. 15. 'The Two Brontes,' 1897.

[Brit. Mus. Cat. ; Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. Oliphant, arranged and edited by Mrs. H. Coghill, 1899; Black wood's Magazine, 1897; Who's Who, 1897.]

R. G.