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.

This Week in My Classes

Here’s what my students and I will be reading and talking about this week:

1. English 3032, 19th-Century Novel: We are finishing up Trollope’s The Warden, with a special focus on Trollope’s redefinition of heroism on a small scale and on his interest in the way public questions are always “a conglomeration of private interests.” We’ll also be looking at the role of his intrusive narrator, and at his parodies of Carlyle (as Dr. Pessimist Anticant) and Dickens (as Mr Popular Sentiment) as he works towards his own theory of fiction. “What story was ever written without a demon?” he asks in Chapter XV; “What novel, what history, what work of any sort, what world, would be perfect without existing principles both of good and evil?” As every reader of The Warden comes to see, this novel does not allow us to perceive the world as consisting of such extremes, despite John Bold’s frustrated exclamation, “If there be a devil, a real devil here on earth, it is Dr. Grantly.”

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers: This week it’s Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography, which shifts us sharply away from last week’s more abstract discussion of Victorian arguments over femininity and women’s ‘mission’ into a life full of contradictions and compromises, struggle and suffering (economic and mental). While Oliphant’s consideration of her own fiction, and her comparisons (often rueful or resentful) between her own hard-earned modest success and her more triumphant literary ‘sisters’ (especially George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte) will be of much interest to us, I am sure we will also talk about the form, mode, and tone of the Autobiography itself, with its long passages of heartbreaking lamentation for lost children interwoven with (often, seeming to slice apart) its record of ordinary domestic life and travels. Here’s an excerpt from just after the death of Maggie, aged 10, after a sudden and very brief illness:

I ask myself why, why, and I cannot find any answer. I had but one woman-child and she was just beginning to sympathize with me, to comfort me, and at this dear moment, her little heart expanding, her little mind growing, her sweet life blossoming day by day, God has taken her away out of my arms and refuses to hear my cry and prayer. My heart feels dead. . . . Now I have to go limping and anxious through the world all the days of my life. . . . Oh God forgive me and help me. O God convey to me a sense of my darling’s happiness, a feeling that she will not forget me and that I shall find her again, and have pity upon a poor heartbroken creature who does not know what she is saying. . . .Those curls I was so proud of were never more beautiful than when they were all rippling back with the gold string through them from her dear head as she lay ill, and when they lay all peaceful and still with her white wreath of hyacinths and snowdrops, she as as lovely as the angel she is. Oh my child, my child.

She would lose all of her children before her own death, “writing steadily,” as she says, “all the time” to support the ne’er-do-well sons who survived into adulthood and the array of relatives who came to depend on her industry and charity. The poignant conclusion:

And now here I am all alone.
I cannot write anymore.


Searching for Mrs Oliphant…?

I’ve recently noticed that an unexpectedly large number of ‘hits’ on this blog result from Google searches for Margaret Oliphant or one of the two Oliphant novels I’ve posted on (Hester and Miss Marjoribanks). I’m guessing that the explanation is not a surge of interest in Oliphant among internet surfers but rather a dearth of other internet sources on her, which would make my small contributions more visible. (It would be nice if it were a sign of something else too, of course.) In case anyone lands here who is looking for more substantial sources, I recommend Mary Husemann’s bibliography at the Victorian Web and the collection edited by D. J. Trela called Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive as useful starting points for research. And if you haven’t read it, Oliphant’s Autobiography is engaging and often moving.

Margaret Oliphant, Hester

I am grateful for having been pointed to Hester by the anonymous responses to my earlier posting on Miss Marjoribanks It’s true: Hester is a better novel, in the depth and interest of its characterization, in the unity and momentum of its plot, and in its treatment of women’s roles and options. Catherine and Hester are both impressive characters–Catherine perhaps more so, if only in her divergence from the usual run of female roles and the non-ironic presentation of her power and business competence (can we consider her a kind of rebuttal or alternative to Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice?).

As with Miss Marjoribanks (and most Trollope novels that I’ve read), Hester leaves me feeling that thematic or philosophical interpretations are somewhat beside the point. The editors of my Oxford edition remark that Oliphant is “closer to the mysterious ordinariness of Trollope” than to George Eliot, Dickens, or Gaskell, and their introductory essay emphasizes the commitment of her realism to the ultimate complexity, inexplicability, and inconclusiveness of life. Things happen in the novel, they argue, in a sort of messy way as they do in real life, with people operating on mixed and often inarticulate motives and events unfolding in ways that reveal the limits of individual control over contexts and circumstances. On their reading, the form (or formlessness) of her stories replicates these qualities of real life and thus they have been underappreciated (as, indeed, Oliphant herself predicted). In Hester, much more than in Miss Marjoribanks, the structure of the story actually seemed quite tight, but at the end I did still feel uncertain what it was all ultimately about, just as in Trollope novels you read along (and along, and along) and end up feeling you’ve followed people’s lives from one point to another with many incidents and excursions along the way but without any guiding idea except that people’s lives are interesting and we can (and should) take a sympathetic interest in their details. To carry off such fiction and make it compelling is certainly an accomplishment– but is it a great artistic accomplishment?

I still have two days to decide for sure which Oliphant novel I will use in my “Victorian Women Writers” seminar. Miss Marjoribanks has many elements that present interesting comparisons to the other readings I’ve chosen, especially Middlemarch, as Lucilla (like Dorothea) has ambitions to do something that matters with her life and even ends up living out something like Dorothea’s philanthropic fantasy. I don’t see Hester complementing the other readings quite as clearly, but then it seems fair to have Oliphant represented by the best of her novels that I’ve read. And Hester herself stands up well to Jane Eyre, Margaret Hale, and Dorothea as a feisty heroine trying to figure out how to make a life for herself, defying expectations and facing moral crises along the way.

Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

According to the back cover blurb on my edition of Miss Marjoribanks, Q. D. Leavis hailed its protagonist as the ‘missing link’ between Austen’s Emma and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. I can see the Emma connections much more clearly than the Dorothea ones, except perhaps as, towards the novel’s conclusion, Lucilla rather abruptly decides she’d rather improve the tone of an impoverished village than the tone of ‘society.’ On first reading, Miss Marjoribanks seems a rather purposeless book, though pleasant enough. Lucilla’s little crises offer no real drama and do not have any effect on her character (Elizabeth Jay’s introduction describes Lucilla’s constancy of character as one of Oliphant’s goals–but is it a good idea?). She’s the same self-satisfied optimist at the end as at the beginning. And the narration offers us no commentary to offset Lucilla’s own limited perspective. On the other hand, as an account of abundant energy with no place in particular to express itself–no worthy purpose to serve–the novel is effective, though perhaps (a second reading will help me decide) the book itself is too much the same, that is, puts too much energy into something not very interesting or important. Jay seems to think the novel is a kind of expose of the limited options Lucilla faces (her example of Lucilla pacing out the drawing room for her new carpet is good), but I don’t see evidence that the novel is aware of this problem or upset on Lucilla’s behalf. In Middlemarch, in contrast, the absence of a suitable vocation to absorb Dorothea’s energy and ambition to do good is explored self-consciously at many levels. Miss Marjoribanks is not at all an intellectual novel, and not one that imbues its social observations with much historical depth. I guess that’s why I’m prepared to link it to Emma more strongly–except that Austen too seems much more aware of the problems with her protagonist, and Austen also educates both us and Emma about the risks of self-satisfaction, egotism, and interference without real sympathy or understanding. There’s a strkingly concrete quality about Miss Marjoribanks, though, that I noticed also when I read Phoebe Junior (so far, these are my only two excursions into Oliphant’s fiction). Material objects are what they are, for example, as they are in Trollope; the community and its ordinary habits have a specificity to them that makes thematic or symbolic readings seem to be missing the point. At least in this case, Oliphant’s characters lack the depth, subtlety, and appeal of so many of Trollope’s (some of them seem just gimmicky, such as Mrs Woodburn and her love of mimicry). But you do get a sense of having peered into a world that, for us, is more foreign than we usually allow. At the moment, I am inclined to put Miss Marjoribanks on the syllabus for my graduate seminar on Victorian women novelists. We will be reading Oliphant’s autobiography, in which she famously expresses resentment about George Eliot’s greater success. We will be reading both Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, two of the most celebrated 19th-century novels by women, so we will have a good opportunity to discuss why Oliphant has not considered to be in that top rank, and whether the critical tools and approaches we have honed on writers like Bronte and Eliot work applied to someone like Oliphant who seems to be doing something rather different. (This is a question I often consider with Trollope, whose novels seem to render a lot of our usual ‘sophisticated’ reading strategies absurd.)