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from Moulton's library of literary criticism, vol. VIII.

Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant

  Novelist, born in 1828 at Wallyford, near Musselburgh. In 1849 her "Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland" instantly won approval. This was followed by "Caleb Field" (1850), "Merkland" (1850), "Adam Graeme" (1852), "Katie Stewart" (1852), "Harry Muir" (1853), "Magdalen Hepburn" (1854), "The Quiet Heart" (1854), "Lilliesleaf" (1855), "Zaidee" (1855). It was by the "Chronicles of Carlingford " (first in "Blackwood's," 1861- 64) that her reputation as a novelist was secured. In the first of them, "The Doctor's Family," Little Netty is an original creation; the next, "Salem Chapel," indicates a wider and more vigorous grasp. Mrs. Oliphant settled at Windsor. Other works are "Agnes" (1865), "Madonna Mary" (1866), "The Minister's Wife" (1869), "Ombra" (1872), "A Rose in June" (1874), "Phœbe Junior" (1876), "Within the Precincts" (1879), "In Trust" (1882), "The Ladies Lindores" (1883), "The Wizard's Son" (1884), "Madam" (1885), and "Kirsteen" (1890). Contributions to general literature have been "Life of Edward Irving" (1862); "Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II." (1869); "St. Francis of Assisi" (1871); "Montalembert"(1872); "Makers of Florence" (1876); "Dress" (1878); "Literary History of England, 1790-1825" (1882); "A Little Pilgrim: in the Unseen" (1882); "Makers of Venice" (1888); "Dante" and "Cervantes" in the "Foreign Classics" series (edited by her); "Memoir of Tulloch" (1888); " Royal Edinburgh" (1890); "Life of Laurence Oliphant " (1891); "Makers of Rome" (1894); "Reign of Queen Anne" (1895); "Jeanne d' Arc" (1896); "Child's History of Scotland" (1896); and "William Blackwood & Sons" (1897). Mrs. Oliphant, who received a pension in 1868, died at Wimbleton, 25th June, 1897.--PATRICK AND GROOME, eds., 1897, Chamber's Biographical Dictionary, p. 704.


  I have seen that most eminent woman much, through more than thirty years: I never once, nor for one moment, saw her fall short of the beautiful ideal of genius, sweetness, and goodness, which all who knew her link with her name. For many a day, one could not make out when it was she wrote. But this year, in an afternoon one sometimes saw the sheet of paper lying on a table near her, covered with the minute handwriting. It was felt as presumptuous to talk to her of her work. But when, now and then, one ventured, there was the unaffectedness, there was the frankness, which characterise all she says and does. The hearty good wish of the smallest may somewhat help the biggest: and in the record of that evening, which never mortal saw save its writer, there stands the warm God bless her.--BOYD, ANDREW K. H., 1892, Twenty-Five Years of St. Andrews, vol. II, p. 316.

  When one turns over the pages and pages of letters all addressed to this one correspondent, all either suggesting subjects for her pen or accepting her own selections, the question arises: When did she find time to get through the mass of work they represent? Even the inmates of her own home would find it difficult to explain how it was accomplished. Marvellous industry was a feature in her character, but even that estimable trait is sometimes found to be useless when mental exertion has to be called upon as well. With Mrs. Oliphant perhaps the secret was to be found in the fact of her being able to concentrate her thoughts quickly on the matter that had to be attended to, and her ability to do her work at any time. She worked early and she worked late, and yet there was no time in the day when she could not be seen. She may be said to have been always working, yet her work was never obtruded. In her own home the kindest and most attentive of hostesses she always had time to take part in anything that was going on. To a stranger who saw her leaning back in her chair, her hands occupied with some needle-work, she would seem one of the most leisured of women, no hurry in her speech nor in her movements, only now and then a Swift glance from her dark eyes would tell she was quickly turning over in her mind all that was passing. When she was writing at Strathtyrum we can recall many instances of her charming adaptability to the ways of the house. A guest for whom naturally host and hostess would have wished to make hours and arrangements suit, she would have nothing altered. Down in the morning in time for the golfers' early breakfast, she would wait about and see them off, and talk and work with the ladies of the party, and then quietly steal away to her room to do a good morning's work--a contrast to the solemn fuss that usually prevails when the ladies of a country house-party announce that they have "letters to write." The time she perhaps did the greater part of her writing was during the hours which most of us consecrate to slumber, and in the quiet hush of the night I believe some of her best work was done.--PORTER, MRS. GERALD, 1898, William Blackwood and his Sons, vol. III, p. 350.

  For more than a generation Mrs. Oliphant produced novel after novel, and essay after essay, not to mention many books of a more ambitious and serious nature. Her readers have been limited to no one nationality, no hemisphere, no zone. That her books have given delight to many thousands need not be said. None of them great books--among them all (and they number perhaps a hundred) not one that will penetrate far into the new century--there is scarcely one that has not been read with pleasure, not to say with profit. She produced them so rapidly that the public long since marvelled until marvelling from exhaustion ceased.--HALSEY, FRANCIS WHITING, 1902, Our Literary Deluge and some of its Deep Waters, p. 128.


  Nothing half so true ["Margaret Maitland") or so touching (in the delineation of Scottish character) has appeared since Galt published his "Annals of the Parish"--and this is purer and deeper than Galt, and even more absolutely and simply true. It would have been better though and made a stronger impression if it had copied Galt's brevity, and is sensibly injured by the indifferent matter which has been admitted to bring it up to the standard of three volume.--JEFFREY, FRANCIS, 1850, Mrs. 0liphant's Autobiography and Letters.

  To me she is charming. To read her is like being with a delightful woman--a woman of powerful intellect, which she veils perhaps from the eyes of many readers, though not from mine, by her thoroughly feminine tact. And then her style seems to me so perfect. I wish, in token of my admiration, you would send her a copy of my new volume.--KINGLAKE, ALEXANDER WILLIAM, 1874, Letter to John Blackwood, William Blackwood and his Sons, ed. Mrs. Porter, vol. III, p. 114.

  Mrs. Oliphant has recently given to the world the memoirs of Mr. Laurence Oliphant. Of her capabilities to do justice to that portion of his career which represents his social, diplomatic and literary success, there is no question. But she confesses herself "bewildered" and "ignorant" in dealing with that mystical side which--from her point of view--was so potent in upsetting that otherwise brilliant career. On the worldly side of Mr. Oliphant's nature his biographer is ably eloquent; but the spiritual side is to her a closed book. It is to be deplored, however, that what she is unable to understand of it, she should have employed her powers as a mistress of fiction to supply. By calling in the aid of the stage villain to serve as a foil to her hero she has developed a romance rather than a biography.--PHILLIPS, JANET (BERYL), 1891, Mr. Harris and Mr. Oliphant, National Review, vol. 17, p. 681.

  To me, her fertility is miraculous; and the high standard steadily maintained through all. Surely she is the most remarkable woman now living: and she has written as good material as any woman ever wrote. I know you think of George Eliot. Mrs. Oliphant, writing ten times as much, has written as excellent thought as ever came from that pen. She has done enough to make half-a-dozen reputations. Her two stories, "A Rose in June," and "Madam," hardly noted among so many, would have set a novelist in the highest place. And her Lives of Edward Irving, and of Tulloch, would set her high among biographers. In quite another walk, think of Florence, Venice, and Edinburgh. Then, as time goes on, her writing grows ever fresher and brighter.--BOYD, ANDREW K. H., 1892, Twenty-Five Years of St. Andrews, vol. I, p. 66.

  It is, of course, as a novelist that Mrs. Oliphant did her work and earned her reputation. When one begins to specify particular books, it is easy to see that Mrs. Oliphant never wrote anything conspicuously above or conspicuously below her standard. In our judgment--a judgment which it must be confessed fluctuates on this point-"Phœbe Junior" is on the whole the best and most perfect of Mrs. Oliphant's works. . . . She was truly religious, but shrank from the more intimate expressions of religious feeling. Perhaps her heart never opened itself so fully as in that beautiful book, "The Beleaguered City," a book which had several companions not unworthy to stand beside it. . . . Mrs. Oliphant's articles did not meet with unmixed approval, and on various occasions we have ourselves challenged them. She had eyes like a hawk. She could say more easily than most people the things that stab and blister. She was often merciless, and sometimes she was unfair. She fiercely resented popularities that were undeserved. She could not abide mawkish sentiment. She had educated herself into the true aristocrat's view of fife, and had a genuine contempt for the Philistine. It need not be wondered if she was sometimes cruel, but we have often been surprised that her hard experience never seemed to school her into charity and restraint. To the last she was as fierce, as uncontrolled, as bitter as ever when her temper was touched. . . . Much of her critical writing has been collected in books, the best of these being undoubtedly "Historical Sketches of The Reign of George III." [?] In this occurs, perhaps, the finest thing she ever wrote--the noble panegyric of "Clarissa Harlowe."--NICOLL, W. ROBERTSON, 1897, Mrs. Oliphant, The Bookman, vol. 5, pp. 485, 486.

  The author of the "Chronicles of Carlingford" has been a classic since the 'sixties. From the time that those famous sketches of society appeared in Blackwood's her position in our foremost rank of novelists has been assured, and she has maintained it in an unbroken series of novels through all the ensuing years; in thirty-five years more than sixty important novels have come from her pen--a most wonderful record in point of fertility and industry, but still more so if we consider the quality and characteristics of the work.--SLATER, GERTRUDE, 1897, Mrs. Oliphant as a Realist, Westminster Review, vol. 148, p. 682.

  There have been, perhaps there are (and she herself would have been the first to say it with full belief), greater novelists, but who has ever achieved the same variety of literary work with anything like the same level of excellence? A great deal of her very best remains at present anonymous--biographical and critical papers, and others dealing with an extraordinary variety of projects. But merely to divide her books into classes gives some little idea of the range of her powers. Her novels, long and short, can hardly number much less than a hundred, but these for a long time back were by no means her works of predilection; they were necessary pot-boilers, and in the three last sad years all fiction had been heavy labour to her. . . . Then come the brilliant papers on the reign of George II., collected some years ago; and those of the reign of Queen Anne, the laborious, but not entirely successful "Literary History of England" and "A Child's History of Scot- land." The "Makers of Florence" began a fresh series in 1876; it was followed at intervals by the "Makers of Venice," "Rome," and "Jerusalem," each of these books involving immense labour, and all, except "Rome," having its materials carefully collected on the spot. The typography of Rome she knew well; every aspect of it had been engraved on her memory with the pencil of sorrow. Finally, there remains one of the most wonderful set of writings in our language--that which began very simply and sweetly with "A Little Pilgrim," and went on through various "Stories of the Seen and the Unseen," reaching a strange poetic power and beauty in "A Beleaguered City," and finding, to those who were near enough to her life to guess the thoughts with which it was written, a most fitting end in "The Land of Suspense."--COGHILL, ANNIE L., 1897, Mrs. Oliphant, Fortnightly Review, vol. 68, p. 280.

  Mrs. Oliphant will probably be thought to have touched the height of her creative and dramatic power in the "Chronicles of Carlingford," stories of the quiet, decorous, and yet concentrated life of an old-fashioned English provincial town, in several of which the same characters reappear. In their manner of treatment, midway between the demure conventionalism and half-unconscious drolleries of Miss Austen and the labored intellectuality and excessive research of the more imposing George Eliot, they seem to me among the soundest, sweetest, fairest fruits we have of the unforced feminine intelligence.--PRESTON, HARRIET WATERS, 1897, Men and Letters, Atlantic Monthly, vol. 80, p. 425.

  Notwithstanding Mrs. Oliphant's advanced years and multiplied sorrows, her wonderful vitality to the last gave little sign of decay, and she continued to the day of her death to be one of the ornaments of a profession which she had adorned for nearly fifty years.--GRAHAM, RICHARD D., 1897, The Masters of Victorian Literature, p. 99.

  We may perhaps be fairly asked for a general estimate of Mrs. Oliphant's character and place in literature. As to the first, her books, her autobiography, and her letters leave on our minds the impression of a very noble character, who to a certain extent missed her path in life, and sacrificed her obvious and most beneficial destiny to an exaggerated idea of duty to kinsfolk little worthy of such devotion. As to the second, we should, in respect of the best of her work, which was very great in mass, place her exactly where she obviously placed herself--that is, next after George Eliot of the feminine writers of the second half of the century. She had not the almost Shakespearean power of Miss Evans, but she is the superior of any other competitor, even of Charlotte Brontë, whose range was much more limited, and who, if she probed deeper, did not make her figures so exquisitely lifelike.--TOWNSEND, MEREDITH, 1899, Mrs. Oliphant, Cornhill Magazine, vol. 79, p. 779.

  Most distinguished novelists who have not completely attained the highest rank, have written themselves, so to speak, into form, passing through a period of apprenticeship before reaching a level which they long retained, and ending by writing themselves out. Mrs. Oliphant's literary history is different. Totally inexperienced in composition, she began by a book which she never very greatly surpassed, and the end of her career found her almost as fresh as at the beginning. It seemed a natural criticism that she should have devoted herself to some concentrated effort of mind which would have placed herself in the front rank; but the probability is that she made the best possible use of her powers. Her great gifts--invention, humour, pathos, the power of bringing persons and scenes vividly before the eye--could hardly have been augmented by any amount of study, and no study could have given her the incommunicable something that stamps the great author. She resembled the George Sand of George Sand's later period in her consummate ease of production, but she had never known the Frenchwoman's day of genius and enthusiasm. Her work as a biographer and compiler, which alone would have made a respectable reputation for many authors, was probably of service to her as a distraction from mental strain.--GARNETT, RICHARD, 1901, Dictionary of National Biography, Supplement, vol. III, p. 233.


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