Famously productive, Scottish writer Mrs. Oliphant (1828–1897) published more than 90 novels, 50 short stories, and 300 articles in addition to countless pieces of nonfiction: biographies, literary criticism, and travel histories. Although overlooked as a “serious” writer during her lifetime, she received renewed interest late in the century after her death as historians began to mine her novels for critical observations about Victorian society.
Margaret Oliphant took up writing in her teens as a pastime and diversion from the hardships of life. As a young adult, however, writing became a necessity. During Oliphant's short-lived marriage, her husband was often ill, and she was required to support the family. After he died, she was left with young children and other dependent family members to provide for. Because writing was one of the few ways a Victorian woman could earn money, Oliphant wrote incessantly, hoping to keep her debts at bay. Her prolific output damaged her critical reputation, however, and in some literary circles, she was dismissed as a hack. “When people comment upon the number of books I have written, and I say that I am so far from being proud of that fact that I should like at least half of them forgotten, they stare—and yet it is quite true …,” Oliphant conceded in her autobiography. “They are my work, which I like in the doing, which is my natural way of occupying myself which are never so good as I meant them to be.”
Despite being disparaged by some critics, Oliphant was said to be the favorite novelist of Queen Victoria, who reigned over Britain from 1837 to 1901. Writing in the New Criterion, Marc M. Arkin suggested that criticisms leveled at Oliphant are unwarranted. “At her best, she was every bit as humane a novelist as [Anthony] Trollope, as sharp-eyed an observer of the human condition as Henry James or Edith Wharton, of social class and religion as George Eliot or Jane Austen, as much of a craftsman of tension as Wilkie Collins, all with a generosity of spirit lacking in [William Makepeace] Thackeray. Her best work evidences a tongue-in-cheek perspective and wry humor that sometimes takes the first-time reader by surprise.”
Oliphant was born Margaret Oliphant Wilson on April 4, 1828, in Wallyford, Midlothian, Scotland, and grew up alongside two older brothers, Francis (Frank) and William (Willie). She was named after her mother, Margaret Wilson; her father, Francis Wilson, worked as a clerk. For a time, the family lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where Francis Wilson was employed at the Royal Bank. By 1838, the family had moved to a Scottish ex-pat community in Liverpool, England, where Oliphant's father worked as a customs clerk.
Despite the seclusion, Oliphant began attracting suitors at age 16, the first being a young Irish minister she had no interest in. The second was a young man she called J.Y. in her autobiography, and she agreed to marry him on the eve he set sail for the United States. Although initially, the letters flowed between the two would-be lovers, J.Y. eventually stopped writing and Oliphant knew it was over. To deal with her broken heart, the 17-year-old began writing a novel, doing so as more of a diversion from life than as a serious literary undertaking.
The novel, titled Christian Melville, was published more than a decade after it was written, bearing the name of her brother, William Wilson, as a byline. It chronicled the story of the Melville family, which included an alcoholic brother and a strong sister figure. While Oliphant skipped the topic of heartbreak in this “beginner” novel, she would later explore romantic devotion in her novels Kirsteen (1890) and Old Mr. Tredgold (1895).
In 1849, the 21-year-old Oliphant published her debut novel, Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland of Sunnyside. Her protagonist was a Scottish spinster raising her niece. Like Christian Melville, it also included an alcoholic character, a common theme in Oliphant's writing because her brother Willie suffered from the disease. While it did not become a best seller, Margaret Maitland made enough of a splash in British literary circles to be mentioned in the letters of Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontè. Oliphant followed her first success with a historical novel, Caleb Field: A Tale of the Puritans, published in 1851.
On May 4, 1852, Oliphant married her maternal cousin, Francis Wilson Oliphant, a painter and stained glass artist who was ten years her senior. The marriage made her full legal name Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant and at times she published anonymously under the initials “M.O.W.O.” as well as “Mrs. Oliphant” or “M.O.W. Oliphant.” In May 1853, Oliphant gave birth to a daughter, Maggie, and then bore a second daughter, Marjorie, in May 1854. Tragically, Marjorie died in 1855, as did a son, who lived only one day after birth. Cyril (best known as Tiddy) was born in 1856, and a second son, Stephen, was born in 1858 but lived only two months.
During the early years of her marriage, Oliphant supported her brother Willie, who had trained as a minister until his alcoholism ended his vocation. Willie was “employed” to help her and was given 10 percent of her profits for making fair copies of her manuscripts. (A “fair copy” incorporates all of the drafts, corrections, and revisions in a single document.) He also helped his sister by negotiating deals with London publishers and took author credits on three other novels besides Christian Melville, which was released in 1856.
In the early 1850s, Oliphant contacted Blackwood's Magazine to inquire about freelance work. Published by William Blackwood, the magazine included serial novels, political satire, literary reviews, and criticism. Blackwood's Magazine was popular among Victorian readers; Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, and Walter Scott contributed to its pages. Oliphant ultimately spent four decades writing for this periodical, contributing hundreds of stories, articles, essays, and serialized novels. Frequently, a single edition of the magazine included several of her written works, many of them anonymous.
Early in the Oliphant's marriage, Francis Oliphant set up a workshop in London where he made stained-glass windows. He hoped to draw a sufficient income from this business to eventually concentrate on painting. Then, in 1857, he became ill with tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs. By the following year, Francis's condition had worsened, and he left his wife and children to go to Italy, where the climate was believed to be more healthful. Tragically, he died in Rome in October 1859, leaving Oliphant in debt with two children—and one on the way. Two months later, she gave birth to Cecco.
Newly widowed, Oliphant fell into a writing slump and had some of her submissions rejected by Blackwood's. For a change of pace, her publisher suggested that she work on translating the memoir of French politician the Compte de Montalembert. She also worked on a biography of Edward Irving, a Scottish preacher. In 1861, Oliphant returned to form, producing the first installment of her “Chronicles of Carlingford” series. The first short story of the series, titled “The Executor,” appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in 1861. Set in the fictional English town of Carlingford, the story followed the affairs of an attorney set to inherit a client's estate if her estranged daughter could not be found. Oliphant added six more pieces to the popular series, including a second short story and five novels. The series—known for its sharp wit—followed the lives of the people in Carlingford as they dealt with domestic dramas, romance, death, and religion. Each installment of the series was written to stand alone.
Like many upper-class Victorians, Oliphant loved to travel. She was in Rome in January 1864 when her 11-yearold daughter, Maggie, contracted the gastric flu and died. While coping with this tragedy, the author wandered around Europe for several months, finally returning to England in September 1865. She settled the family in Windsor so her two surviving sons could attend the Eton Academy as day students.
After Maggie's death, Oliphant threw herself into writing Miss Marjoribanks, the fifth novel in the “Carlingford” series and one of the most popular. Published in 1866, Miss Marjoribanks follows title character Lucilla Marjoribanks as she returns home to Carlingford from boarding school to care for her father after her mother dies. Back home in Carlingford, Lucilla meddles in everyone's affairs while trying to influence the social order of the town. Lucilla refuses to marry, bucking the social conventions of the day, and she struggles to fulfill her ambition for power in a Victorian society where women lacked the right to vote or even own property. In the novel, Lucilla laments that had she been born male, she could have served in parliament.
During most of her writing career, Oliphant was responsible for supporting numerous dependents. Her brother Frank went bankrupt in 1868, and died a few years later, leaving his children in her care. There was also her alcoholic brother, Willie, to support, as well as her sons, who failed to become financially independent. Although Cyril attended Oxford University, he never graduated and instead rang up debts, and Cecco also required financial support.
Financial demands required that Oliphant constantly seek new ways to exploit her talent as a writer. In 1879, she turned to supernatural fiction with A Beleaguered City and Other Tales of the Seen and the Unseen, which explored the afterlife. Between 1880 and 1890, she published more than 25 novels, the more noteworthy including Kirsteen (1890), which focused on the inequity faced by women of her day. The heroine in this tale refuses to marry an elderly suitor and struggles to find autonomy independent of men.
Oliphant encountered further tragedy in the 1890s: son Cyril died in 1890, followed by his brother Cecco in 1894. It was at this point, having outlived six children, a husband, and both of her brothers, that she lost some of her desire to write fiction and began working on her autobiography. Oliphant had started the work as early as 1864, and she intended for the work to be published after her death, with proceeds to benefit her niece, Denny, who was raising one of her nieces and two nephews because their mother had died.
Oliphant died in London on June 25, 1897, and the promised autobiography appeared two years later in a first edition titled The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant Arranged and Edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill. Mrs. Harry Coghill (better known as Anna Louisa Walker) was Oliphant's second cousin and had lived with her since the 1860s as a companion and housekeeper. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant revealed that while its author wrote to support a vast network of dependents, she also wrote to escape the sorrows of her life, refer ring, in one letter, to writing as her “opiate.”
Inspired by her responsibility to others as well as by personal reasons, Oliphant produced a catalog of work that remains impressive in its size and scope. Successful in her struggle to retain readers among a discerning public, she also found success despite the confines of Victorian society, making her work of historical and literary interest within the context of the Victorian era.
Colby, Vineta, and Robert A. Colby, The Equivocal Virtue: Mrs. Oliphant and the Victorian Literary Market Place, Archon Books, 1966.
Oliphant, Margaret, The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant: The Complete Text, edited and introduced by Elisabeth Jay, Oxford University Press, 1990.
London Review of Books, February 5, 1987, Susanna Clapp, “Criminal Elastic.”
New Criterion, November 2016, Marc M. Arkin, “The Marvelous Mrs. Oliphant,” pp. 11–14.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 28, 1923, Mark Stuyvesant, “Heroines of History,” p. 46.□