Victorian Literature Margaret Oliphant
by
Elisabeth Jay
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0048

Introduction

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (b. 1828–d. 1897) was a prolific and influential Victorian author. She turned her professional hand to a variety of prose genres, publishing some ninety-eight novels; over fifty short stories; biographies, both historical and contemporary; historical guides to European cities; and over 300 periodical articles. Oliphant never published under her maiden name of Wilson, though four of her early novels were published under the name of her brother, William Wilson. Her fiction was variously published anonymously, under the initials M. O. W. O, and, after her widowhood in 1859, under the name Mrs. Oliphant. Although she used a variety of publishers, she was best known, for almost fifty years, as the mainstay of the literary periodical Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, sometimes producing serialized fiction, a book review, and an essay for the same monthly edition. Her posthumously published autobiography, in which she questioned whether she had published too much and outlived the literary fashions of midcentury, was partly responsible for a rapid eclipse of her reputation that lasted for much of the 20th century. The closing decades of the 20th century saw a reawakening of interest in her work, prompted by the breadth of her journalism, the unflinching realism of much of her fiction, and her negotiations with a male-dominated literary marketplace. Although her views on “the woman question” did not always make her an easy candidate for feminists to champion, critics have increasingly recognized the individuality of expression and intelligence with which she treated topics as diverse as her Scottish inheritance and various facets of 19th-century spirituality.

General Overviews

These fall into two categories: the critical biographies and those prioritizing the work. The sheer volume of Oliphant’s output has limited critical attempts to address all aspects of her writing. Jay 1995 remains the most comprehensive coverage, although its thematic approach makes this a less straightforward guide to the life than Williams 1986. The title of Colby and Colby 1966 is illustrative of the very measured claims made in the early stages of recuperating Oliphant from obscurity: the authors took at face value Oliphant’s self-deprecating account of a life where the needs of her family always triumphed over the demands of her art. Although Rubik 1994 and Trela 1995 both use the word “subversive” in their titles, this owes more to a particular moment in the changing fashions of critical terminology than to a similarity of approach. Trela, along with many of the contributors to Trela 1995, finds Oliphant’s views on such matters as women’s rights “more complex, and more progressive than she is generally given credit for,” while in Rubik’s rather dogmatic account, untroubled by theory, she is judged a conservative in class and politics, who happened to hold unorthodox views on other matters. The two essay collections Trela 1995 and Jay and O’Gorman 1999 emanate from conferences held almost a decade apart. Trela still feels impelled to make the case for the defense, and his contributors concentrate on Oliphant’s best-known work. Jay and O’Gorman 1999 marks the growing confidence that all areas of her work merit examination.

  • Colby, Vineta, and Robert A. Colby. The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1966.

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    First significant modern review of Oliphant’s career. Uses Blackwood and Macmillan archives but predates National Library of Scotland’s acquisition of the autobiography manuscript and personal correspondence. The book’s thesis that Oliphant undermined her artistic reputation by publishing too much renews a criticism first leveled at her by her contemporaries.

  • Jay, Elisabeth. Mrs. Oliphant: “A Fiction to Herself”; A Literary Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

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    First chapter discusses the life and her autobiography. Subsequent thematic arrangement designed to rebut too-easy equations between the life and the quality of the work. Covers Oliphant’s approach to the ideology of separate spheres, her religious attitudes, her professional dealings, her cultural range, and the characteristics of her style.

  • Jay, Elisabeth, and Francis O’Gorman, eds. Special Issue: Margaret Oliphant. Women’s Writing 6.2 (1999): 163–180.

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    Centenary conference collection that includes essays on her less well-known fiction: John Drayton, The Melvilles, The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow. Relevant essays listed in appropriate sections of this bibliography.

  • Rubik, Margarete. The Novels of Mrs. Oliphant: A Subversive View of Traditional Themes. Writing about Women 8. New York: Peter Lang. 1994.

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    Considers Oliphant’s fiction subversive in challenging some Victorian ideals and clichéd fictional motifs, but conventional enough in her social and political thinking. Sections on narrative techniques, treatment of gender relations, and aspects of religion, including death, the supernatural, and the afterlife.

  • Trela, D. J., ed. Margaret Oliphant: Critical Essays on a Gentle Subversive. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1995.

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    Registers Oliphant’s recuperation from a marginal figure to a central voice in Victorian literature. Relevant essays listed in appropriate sections of this bibliography.

  • Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-18275-6E-mail Citation »

    First biography to have access to the autobiography manuscript and family correspondence. This darkened the account of her personal life without much alleviating the charge that her fiction increasingly sacrificed quality to quantity. Biographical chapters are interspersed with chronologically arranged appraisals of the novels and short stories.

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