I’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.
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.
Twenty-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.”
She 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.