Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Margaret Oliphant, an Overlooked Nineteenth-Century Novelist

Margaret Oliphant (born 4 April 1828)

Although she was a contemporary of the novelist Charles Dickens, Margaret Oliphant has hardly achieved the canonical status of Dickens (1812-70), or even another very popular contemporary fiction writer, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). And yet, as far as I am concerned, Margaret Oliphant beats them both.

And so, on the occasion of her birthday, if you haven't yet read any of Oliphant's novels, why not pick one up? I could cut-and-paste dozens of comments from literary critics who have lamented her obscurity and argued her brilliance, but you can judge for yourself.

Over the course of nearly fifty years (she died in 1897), "Mrs. Oliphant" published some 100 novels and novellas (in addition, she also published travel books, histories, and critical essays). Some of her fiction can be classified as "supernatural," some is historical fiction, and some is set in her native Scotland. Nearly all her works can give you a sense of the difficulties faced by nineteenth-century women of all classes--the focus on marriage, sometimes happy but frequently not--is also compelling. And she can be very, very funny--I love her tart observations and brilliantly targeted social satire.

There are many stand-alone novels--I recommend The Marriage of Elinor, The Greatest Heiress in England and its sequel, Sir Tom, and Hester, although I have enjoyed everything of Oliphant's that I've read. 

But her masterpiece, in my opinion, is her series known collectively as "The Chronicles of Carlingford," six interconnected novellas and novels: Salem Chapel (1863), The Rector (1863), The Doctor's Family (1863), The Perpetual Curate (1864), Miss Marjoribanks (1866), and Phoebe Junior (1876).

For once I'm not going to link to places to buy Oliphant's novels--many of her works are available in Penguin and World's Classics editions, nearly all are available in reprinted print-on-demand versions (be careful--these can be very expensive), nearly all are available in free electronic editions in various formats (accessible via Kindle, Nook, and Google Books, for example), and many are available at free sites like the Internet Archive.

Whatever your medium, do read Margaret Oliphant! And for a sense of contemporary assessment of her work, you can link to her obituary in the New York Times by clicking here. And if you become a fan of Oliphant, you will undoubtedly enjoy a website devoted to her: The Margaret Oliphant Fiction Collection, biographical and bibliographical information and a page dedicated to each one of Oliphant's works!