My Dear Bright Child

oliphant autoI’ve assigned Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography many times over the years in the graduate seminar I’ve offered on Victorian women writers. I read it first myself in a similar seminar offered by Dorothy Mermin at Cornell: I realized later that this was while she was working on her excellent book Godiva’s Ride: Women of Letters in England 1830-1880, which I have always recommended to students as background reading in my course. I’ve usually focused on Oliphant’s self-conscious and often defensive positioning of herself as a woman and a writer (“I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children”) and especially on her much-quoted comments about George Eliot, which emanate both bitterness and pathos (“Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of? . . . No one even will mention me in the same breath with George Eliot”).

Oliphant was incredibly prolific. I’ve read and enjoyed two or three of her 80+ novels as well as some of her short fiction and quite a bit of her criticism; I included her essay “Modern Novelists—Great and Small” in my Broadview anthology.  But it’s the Autobiography that has made the strongest impression on me, as it did on Virginia Woolf, who though generally disparaging about Oliphant (notably in Three Guineas) singled the Autobiography out as “a most genuine and moving piece of work.”

It isn’t Oliphant’s literary or professional ruminations that are “moving,” of course; it’s her incredibly raw accounts of the deaths of her three children. How many times in class did I talk about how heartbreaking these sections are—just as, so many times, I have run down the sad record of the Brontë children’s deaths as part of my introductory lectures for Jane Eyre or Villette or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or noted that part of Gaskell’s impetus for writing Mary Barton was her struggle to cope with her grief after the death of her baby son. Imagine, I always said, the death of a child. How terrible. How terribly sad.Portrait_of_Margaret_Oliphant_Wilson_Oliphant

Now, of course, I don’t have to imagine it, and when I picked up Oliphant’s Autobiography again this week I found that it was not so much terribly sad as terribly familiar. “I have not been resigned,” she says after the shockingly sudden death of her ten-year-old daughter Maggie, her “dear bright child,” on a trip to Rome in 1864; “I cannot feel resigned, my heart is sore as if it was an injury.” “The hardest moment in my present sad life,” she goes on,

is the morning, when I must wake up and begin the dreary world again. I can sleep during the night, and I sleep as long as I can; but when it is no longer possible, when the light can no longer be gainsaid, and life is going on everywhere, then I, too, rise up to bear my burden. How different it used to be! . . . Things must be better than one thought, must be well, in a world which woke up to that new light, to the sweet dews and sweet air which renewed one’s soul. Now I am thankful for the night and the darkness, and shudder to see the light and the day returning.

Her grief throws her into agonizing religious doubt, especially when she wonders what Maggie might have felt at their separation (“Did she not stop short there and say, ‘Where is Mama?’ . . . This thought of very desolation”). She seeks but does not find consolation in the conviction she clings to, that “God cannot have done it without a reason.” I do not share her religious beliefs, but I understand her desperate struggle to reconcile her shocking loss with ideas about her life and its meaning and direction that she had taken for granted before.

Margaret_Oliphant_and_her_FamilyTwenty-one years pass between these painful sections and the next section of the Autobiography, and in that gap is, as she notes, “a little lifetime.” “I have just been rereading it all with tears,” she says, “sorry, very sorry for that poor little soul who has lived through so much since.” Writing those words in 1885, she had no idea how much more sorrow lay ahead. First came the death of her son Cyril in 1890 (“I have been permitted to do everything for him, to wind up his young life, to accept the thousand and thousand disappointments and thoughts of what might have been”), and then in 1894, the death of her son Cecco (“The younger after the elder and on this earth I have no son—I have no child. I am a mother childless”).  “What have I left now?” she laments. “My work is over, my house is desolate. I am empty of all things.” In her despair (“It is not in me to take a dose and end it. Oh I wish it were”), her vast literary output brings her no comfort: “nobody thinks that the few books I will leave behind me count for anything.”

library-windowShe kept writing, though, not just the Autobiography—which she reconceived somewhat, pragmatically, once it was no longer intended for her children, as something lighter and more anecdotal—but also more fiction, including her excellent ghost story “The Library Window,” recently reprinted by Broadview. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of ghost stories to a mother whose beloved children would have been there but not there every waking minute. I know what that’s like.

The Autobiography concludes on a note of supreme desolation:

And now here I am all alone

I cannot write any more.

It’s sad to think that Oliphant doubted her writing would last, that it would “count for anything.” If this were my seminar, something we’d probably talk about is why it might be that it’s her most personal writing, her writing as a mother, that (for me and Woolf, anyway) seems the most powerful. Are we just (and I do think Woolf was) underestimating her skill as a novelist, and the value of the contributions she made in other forms? How does the reception of the Autobiography play into the contradictions she, like so many of her contemporaries, knew were assumed between the identities “woman” and “writer”? (“Henceforward,” Elizabeth Gaskell writes in her biography of Charlotte Brontë, “Charlotte Brontë’s existence becomes divided into two parallel currents—her life as Currer Bell, the author; her life as Charlotte Brontë, the woman.”) I’m not teaching now, though, just reading, and grieving my own dear bright child.

9 thoughts on “My Dear Bright Child

  1. Jeanne April 28, 2022 / 11:03 am

    Maybe I’ll get around to reading Margaret Oliphant in retirement.
    There are a lot of things going wrong in my life right now, but this puts them into better perspective. The part about “thankful for the night and the darkness, and shudder to see the light and the day returning” is terribly evocative.
    Thinking of you.

    • Rohan Maitzen April 28, 2022 / 3:19 pm

      The novels of hers that I’ve read (and I’m pretty certain now that it’s at least three) have all been very enjoyable – about the same pace and feel as Trollope. I supervised an MA thesis on her years ago that also made a persuasive case that she was underappreciated.

  2. ellenandjim April 28, 2022 / 4:14 pm

    I’ve read a number of her novels by now (recommended: Elinor, the Ladies Lindores, and of course Hester) and taught Kirsteen, “the Library Window” and “The open Door.” Written a number of blogs now, e.g.,

    https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2017/11/23/margaret-oliphants-novelsofwomenslivesmarriageandcareer/

    Her criticism is superb: she alone it seems to me is adequate to Austen’s acid and irony.

    But the book by her that stays with me most of all is her Autobiography — especially in the 1899 version edited by her niece and followed by her letters to Blackwood. The ending sentences are hard to bear — I read them before my husband died and found them so.

    She is right when she suggests how under-rated she is. Lots of reasons for this. Woolf (It seems to me) berated Oliphant so unfairly — Oliphant did not only not have a Lewes to negotiate for her, she was not the respected center of Bloomsbury worlds.

    Maybe think of her as a model this way: the strength she displayed over and over. It cost her dearly and she tells us about her struggle in this Autobiography.

    • Rohan Maitzen April 28, 2022 / 6:18 pm

      “the book by her that stays with me most of all is her Autobiography” – yes, me too, as I say in the post.

  3. Colleen April 30, 2022 / 5:19 pm

    I think of you often, Rohan, both your heartache and how grateful I am to you for giving me the Victorians via that George Eliot seminar, so long ago now.

    I agree that Oliphant is underrated; I got a fellow Renaissance scholar on to her a few years ago and he’s now read almost all her books. I’ve been rationing them to ensure I always have more, but I clearly need to get beyond that; thanks for the reminder of what I’ve been depriving myself of.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 2, 2022 / 10:59 am

      Thank you, Colleen. So long ago indeed! Walking down the corridor to my office on campus the other day I was struck by how many of those who were my colleagues then are now gone or retired. It made me feel very old and tired.

  4. Arlene Young May 1, 2022 / 1:12 pm

    I have always found Oliphant’s Autobiography incredibly hard to read. I assigned it only once in a course, because I wasn’t able to talk about it with students — the emotion was too intense and my own grief too raw. It is always a surprise to me how funny so much (but not all) of her fiction is. I’ve read a lot of her work, in part because I enjoy it so much and in part because I have such respect for how she managed her tragic life so courageously. And you, too, Rohan, are managing your tragedy with grace and courage.

    • Rohan Maitzen May 2, 2022 / 7:44 am

      I wish that were true – I hope it is sometimes true. Oliphant also says “My misery makes my heart harder not softer. I grudge and wonder at the happiness of others. I am not the better for my grief.” That too often seems sadly familiar, though I wish it didn’t. I am really trying to maintain some version of my ‘best self.’

      • Arlene Young May 2, 2022 / 8:38 am

        You will, Rohan. I remember Stevie’s pediatrician told me that the one best guess they had about why Stevie died was that, in the end, he developed Stevens-Johnson Syndrome in response to one of his meds. A few months later, a little boy on the same drug developed similar early symptoms. He was immediately taken off the drug and recovered. The pediatrician suggested that maybe that made me feel better, that Stevie, in a sense, had saved another child’s life. I looked at him and said, rather coldly, that no, it did not make me feel any better. I only wished that the other child had saved Stevie. Not very gracious. Now, however, I feel that Stevie is a part of my better self. He was a much kinder and more generous person than I was — or am– and I constantly learn from remembering him. Your love and your memories will eventually heal you, at least in part.

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