Margaret Oliphant, novelist, critic, journalist and biographer, died on the 25th of June, 1897.
To call Margaret Oliphant a prolific writer is an understatement. In the fifty-two years of her literary career, Margaret Oliphant averaged over two and a half books per annum; not counting articles, essays and short stories. Although Margaret Oliphant was born in Scotland and spent part of her life in England, much of her writing is set in Scotland and deals with Scottish themes and characters, drawing on her roots and the Scots oral tradition. She began her abundant literary output when she was seventeen and by the time of her death, from a seemingly endless source, she had produced ninety-eight novels, in excess of thirty-nine works of non-fiction, and over two hundred short stories, essays, articles and serialised novels for Blackwood’s Magazine.
A lot of Oliphant’s work is concerned with issues of gender and class and the injustices faced by women in Victorian society. As a consequence, its legacy stands as significant criticism of the social values of the 19th Century. Perhaps her best known work is ‘Miss Marjoribanks’, a novel in ‘The Chronicles of Carlingford’ series. Some of her most powerful stories are her supernatural tales and her non-fiction works include books on history and biographies or ‘Lives’ of St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Chalmers, the Scottish preacher and philosopher. But for the detrimental effect of her prodigious output, Oliphant might have been considered one of the most important writers of Victorian fiction. Although she never earned the reputation of Charles Dickens or George Eliot, she was reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist and considered to be the superior of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austin.
Margaret Wilson was born on the 4th of April, 1828, in Wallyford, near Musselburgh, and it wasn’t until 1852 that she became an Oliphant, when she married her cousin, Frank Wilson Oliphant, a stained-glass window designer and painter. Long before that, she lived with her family in Lasswade, near Edinburgh, then in Glasgow, Liverpool and Birkenhead. In later life, she travelled in Europe and lived in London, Edinburgh, Windsor and Wimbledon.
Margaret derived her love of literature from her mother, who was keen that Margaret should be well read and get a good education, for there were few career options for women in the 19th Century. Her family belonged to the Free Church of Scotland and was active in challenging the Corn Law, a piece of legislation that favored wealthy landowners to the detriment of the poor. Those progressive political values, with which she was raised, undoubtedly helped her to become the independent and self-sufficient author she ultimately had to be.
In 1849, Margaret published her first novel, ‘Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland’. That story, with its sharp delineation of Scottish character and setting, proved extremely popular and went through three successive editions. Sometime prior to 1852, she began contributing to magazines, including Blackwood’s Magazine, for which she went on to write hundreds of short stories, essays, articles and serialised novels, right up until the time of her death. One of those serialised novels was ‘Katie Stewart’, which appeared from July to November, in 1852, and she often contributed several pieces for a single edition, with many of them being published anonymously.
Francis Jeffrey, who edited Margaret’s autobiography, said of the character ‘Margaret Maitland’, “Nothing half so true 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.”
Throughout her life, her close relationship to Blackwood’s was her saving grace, helping her to remain solvent by giving her loans on the security of future works and various publishing assignments. Margaret once described herself as Blackwood’s “general utility woman” for she could turn her hand to almost any subject. She switched between many genres to the magazine’s great benefit: literature; literary criticism; translations; biographies; and history, including a history of the publishing house itself. In 1861, Blackwood’s Magazine published the first of the ‘Chronicles of Carlingford’, which were modeled, at least in part, on Trollope’s ‘Barset Chronicles’. This ambitious series of seven novels is perhaps Margaret’s most accomplished work.
Margaret’s personal life was a catalogue of sorrows. In 1845, her first love emigrated to America. Later, her husband of just seven years, who suffered from tuberculosis, died in Rome, leaving her alone and pregnant with a pile of debts and several young children. All told, she had six children, with only three surviving infancy, none of whom outlived her. Her daughter died, also in Rome, in 1864, and an alcoholic son, who became economically dependent upon her, died in 1890. Her remaining son died four years later. To add to her woes, she also supported an alcoholic brother for the best part of twenty-five years. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, Margaret also had to support her other brother and his three children after he suffered financial ruin, became widowed and suffered a nervous breakdown. Her nephew also died in early adulthood.
So, it’s hardly surprising that death and destitution are never far away in her novels as are strong female characters. Oliphant also wrote a series of supernatural short stories called ‘Tales of the Seen and Unseen’, which to some extent mirror her own losses, tragedy and grief. She also succeeded in that genre, with ‘A Beleaguered City’ receiving critical acclaim on publication, in 1879. Her financial responsibilities took their toll on her writing and her later efforts never achieved the same critical success as her earlier work. That explains her substantial output, in which she latterly sacrificed something of quality for necessary quantity.
Margaret Oliphant died as a result of cancer of the colon, in the midst of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, on the 25th of June, 1897. She was buried in Eton cemetery, alongside her two sons.