Margaret Oliphant as a younger author (about 1860, from The Bookman, 1897)
She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter — Oliphant on Austen
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve just finished a great novel, later 19th century (1883), and for the second time feel convinced Hester as much a masterpiece that people should read as any by George Eliot (but Middlemarch and Romola is in a different league), as any by Anthony Trollope, as many by Dickens, any by Thackeray (but Vanity Fair), yet I’m hard put to explain why or how because like Austen whom Oliphant understood so well Oliphant “never rises above the level of ordinary life,” and skewers “what is remorsely true.” The difference is that in this novel Oliphant is appalled and feels heart-broken over what she so despairingly sees.
Merryn Williams (in her literary biography of Oliphant) says of Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor (1891) what is true of Hester “its strength is in the way it explores and illuminates a painful situation.” In Hester we see how a woman make a shipwreck of her life because she behaves deeply well to someone near her (spouse, nephew, son), trusts him but because she also tries to control him, expects he will behave nobly in return, is deeply resented and out of bitterness betrayed. In Elinor the betrayer is a husband, and we discover that Elinor finds salvation in her relationship with her mother and her child. It’s not astonishing that what happens in Elinor parallels Oliphant’s imagined later life with her husband and mother (had either of them lived) but it is astonishing that relationship of the older single heroine of Hester, Catherine Vernon, with one of her much younger cousins, Edward Vernon, parallels Oliphant herself in her relationship with her sons. The novel can be read as showing that Oliphant understood that she was in part to blame for her son’s derelict irresponsible characters and yet that this outcome need not have happened; the son-nephew need not have responded with suspicion, mistrust, even anger at this high-minded giving of hers.
The novel is also about how hard it is for people to communicate with one another humanely. There are two parallel and admirable women characters: in character type, strongly ethical by instinct, highly perceptive, capable of reading with understanding people and books, not to omit business practices and courtship, Hester Vernon, is a young version of Catherine who is Hester’s mother’s cousin-in-law. As the novel opens, they are placed in hostile-feeling positions. Unknown to Hester, her father, John Vernon, was responsible for nearly destroying the family banking business and simply ran away (and died) to avoid having to cope; Catherine had also been in love with him when he chose Hester’s mother, a woman of feeble mind, obtuse, utterly conventional in all her ideas, thinking, feeling cant (as Samuel Johnson would have said). Catherine offers them a home, the house they had lived in, in the same spirit as she houses other of her indigent relatives. She is not generous spirited in mood to any of these relatives (in Vernonry) but then most (not Hester, who is too proud and decent, nor her mother who is too dumb) are endlessly spiteful, ungrateful, competitive. Catherine’s way of dealing with this is to smile at them; under the smile we can register Oliphant’s deeper sense of profound dismay kept at bay. What Oliphant shows us is a deep calm scepticism about all human professions of idealism, a justified cynicism. She’s been accused of being hostile to men: rather she is rare for not according them any deference when they are weak or lacking. In reality she can be just as hostile to women, but it’s not noticed. Hester then conceives a dislike of Catherine-Oliphant out a resentment similar to Edward’s, milder as the generosity is milder and the smiles not seen as often. Catherine herself cannot bear the remembrance of Hester’s father or his preference for Hester’s helpless hopeless mother. It is extraordinary how Oliphant is seeing through herself in this book.
The novel moves slowly. Hester at first tries to free herself by asserting she will take a teaching position. She finds no one will tolerate this: it lowers her, the family, she is told will make her miserable. All she is allowed is to live by her mother’s side and wait for some young man to ask her to be his wife. There is someone available in her small world’s stage and there are people who are capable of companionate supportive friendship. There are two further young cousins of Catherine, first, Harry Vernon, good-natured and as it emerges instinctively deeply ethical and far more generous spirited than any one else, but not perceptive, not active intellectually, energetic, or with much business sense (he has no competition in him) falls in love with Hester, courts, asks her to marry him, and is refused. His sister, Ellen, marries a weak man, Algernon Merridew, someone easy to lead, and sets up a housekeeping style well above their means, one which includes regular assembly dances. To these eventually come the grandchildren of two further pensioners (for once not Vernons) Captain and Mrs Morgan: Roland and Emma Ashton. Roland has all the intelligence, savoir-faire, and sophistication (it is he who tempts Edward to gamble in the stock-market without meaning to disrupt the Vernon bank) and he is drawn to Hester. Emma is a comical version (except ultimately it’s not funny) of the crass match-seeking impoverished young woman. The grandparents, and especially Captain Morgan provide Hester with meaningful talk, advice, companionship, daily small enjoyments of walking, eating together, passing time sharing whatever is passing.
The Morgans, in some moods, a further sensible young woman with children whom Catherine supports (Oliphant supported so many in her family, including brothers, brothers’ families when brothers died), Harry, and one of Catherine’s lower rank business associates, Rule (who works with her to save the bank twice) and at the novel’s close the sudden turn-around of Catherine when she has to take in that her beloved Edward hates her, and resumes her place in the bank, opens up to Hester and leans on her, all provide a foundation of believable sane and needed and natural reciprocal kindnesses. Nonetheless, the greatness whereof I speak emerges because the novel is also one of the bitterest realistic novels I’ve ever read. The intensity of inward pain, “her heart throbbing with wild suffering” (Chapter 51, p 453 in the Virago edition introduced by Jenny Uglow) Catherine experiences, the self-torturing anguish of realizing she has not been loved, not trusted, has been duped, deceived, not wanted all these years by her semi-adopted semi-son and heir, Edward, is as strong as any tragic emotion. That Catherine cannot allow herself to be beaten out of pride, because so many depend on her makes the weight of book have as much heft as Middlemarch.
Oliphant kept saying to herself in her autobiography, she wrote as well as George Eliot; she misses the greatness of Eliot’s book because her foundation for her tale is far narrower, and when she widens out (as in The Ladies Lindores) she becomes too defuse (see my review in “The Scottish Angle”). She does (to use Henry James’s phrase) “ful[ly], pleasant[ly], reckless[ly], rustle over depths and difficulties” (quoted by the Colbys in their The Equivocal Virtue, p 138). The novel’s sequel, Lady Car (which I’ve just begun reading), narrows the focus to an inward utter disenchantment of wife (“unable to contend with the wild seas and billows [of inner life] that went over her head”) with husband, of Lady Car’s subsequent bewildered self alienation, and alienation from her son, takes us again into this area of quiet brutality Oliphant excelled in and recognized in Austen. (See also my Phoebe Junior among others.)
As previous generations distorted Oliphant because she would not present herself as vatic (Woolf says she sold herself, is “smeared” by her willingness to be prolific to provide money for her son’s at Eton), so now I find there’s a strong tendency to praise novels whose heroines attempt and succeed at remunerative careers (Kirsteen. which is very good but not that typical); Elisabeth Fay (a fine biography of Mrs Oliphant as a writer) wants “resolution,” something upbeat and progressive, redemptive, hopeful. What then to do with Oliphant’s harrowing ghost stories? Arguably her The Beleaguered City, Camus-like in its despair, is her greatest work (a novella). If you can read Italian (I do with effort) Beatrice Battaglia’s essay on Oliphant’s gothic Dantesque “Land of Darkness” (in La Critica Alla Cultura Occidentale nella leteraturea idstopica inglese), makes a case for Oliphant as a gothic artist and in her ghost stories visionary.
“The Library Window”
I recommend also a chapter by Linda Peterson in her Traditions of Victoirian Women’s Autobiography, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Robert and Vineta Colby’s essay on “The Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 16:4 (1962):283-301.
To return to Hester. My idea is not to be discouraged because probably you (or I) will not get near reading all 147 of her volumes (that number is the Colby’s and includes Oliphant’s biographies and literary history), much less a good deal of her excellent scattered journalism. Henry James called her the “great improvistrice” (a female Trollope). Find and read the best: they are gradually making their way into print through the spread of facsimile editions. You will find as an anonymous Quarterly Review writer said “She approached very subject from a woman’s point of view … believing and professing that a woman’s estimate of life is generally to be preferred to a man’s” (Williams, p 57).
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