Margaret Oliphant: A Life

Margaret Oliphant (née Wilson) was born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh, on 4 April 1828, the youngest child and only daughter of Francis W. Wilson, a clerk, and Margaret Oliphant Wilson. She had two elder brothers, Francis (Frank) and William (Willie). Her family moved to Lasswade, near Edinburgh, then to Glasgow, and finally settled in Liverpool in 1838. (The family moved to nearby Birkenhead years later, sometime after 1845 and not long before publishing her first novel in 1849.) She only returned to Scotland occasionally during her lifetime, but she still kept a strong sense of nationality: many of her novels have Scottish themes, characters and/or settings.

As she relates in her Autobiography, in 1845 she became engaged to a “J.Y.” on the eve of his emigrating to America. But the relationship soon failed, and they broke their engagement. Around this time she wrote her first novel while nursing her mother through an illness. Christian Melville would not be published until 1856, under her brother Willie's name. Her first published novel Passages in the Life of Mrs Margaret Maitland came out in 1849: her brother Willie took charge of negotiating with her first publisher, Colburn, London. In the future she would always deal with publishers herself, even throughout her married life. In that same year she stayed in London for three months acting as her brother Willie's housekeeper (and possibly personal keeper as well, so as to keep him away from that vice he was already showing a dangerous propensity for, alcohol.) During this visit she met her cousins Tom and Frank Oliphant. In 1852 her brother Willie left his first ministerial post in Northumberland, disgraced. He would remain wholly dependent on his family, then on his sister, until his death in 1885. In that same year, and in spite of having turned him down once the previous year, Margaret married her cousin Frank Oliphant, a stained-glass window designer and painter. They moved to London, and her parents and brother Willie soon followed. (Her brother Frank remained in Birkenhead and married a paternal cousin, Jeanie Wilson, in the same year.)

1852 was also the year when Oliphant, after having published several novels with considerable success for so young an author, began her lifelong professional relationship with the Blackwoods. Katie Stewart was the first of her novels to be serialised in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, from July to November 1852. She first contributed non-fiction articles to Maga ( Blackwood's ) in 1854 - she would eventually call herself Blackwood's “general utility woman” for her ability to turn her mind to almost any subject, and move between many genres: literature, literary criticism, history, and biography among others.

She gave birth to her first daughter, Maggie, in 1853. She had six children, but only three survived their infancy: Maggie, Cyril (“Tiddy”, “Tids”, born in 1856) and Francis Romano (“Cecco”, born in 1859). Early in her career she feared this might be a consequence of the considerable amount of mental work she was going through besides her own household duties, as she states in the Autobiography.

In 1859, in the hopes of improving Frank's failing health (he had been suffering from tubercular symptoms for two years already), the family moved to Italy. The expenses were mainly provided for by Margaret's contributions to Maga, and she thus began her habit of arranging loan advances from Blackwood's in exchange for future pieces of work. From very early in her career she would approach several publishers aiming at a position that would provide her with a regular income, such as an editorial post. She was never to obtain the financial security she so much sought. Frank died in Rome in October. Margaret would never know whether her husband knew of his terminal condition before leaving England, though she wished to believe he did not, as his death left her stranded far from home, pregnant, deep in debt. Two months later her last son, Cecco, was born.

In the next year Oliphant and her children moved briefly to her brother Frank's home in Birkenhead, then to Edinburgh. In 1861 the first of her Chronicles of Carlingford series was serialised in Maga. In 1864 while on her second trip to Italy (this time accompanied by friends), her daughter Maggie died in Rome. This would be one of the severest blows Oliphant would receive in her life, in spite of her many bereavements. She never returned to “rotting Rome,” not even to visit her brother Willie, who would live there supported by her from the early 1860s until his death a quarter of a century later. Not able to face an immediate return to England, she spent the next year and nine months travelling around Europe. Late in 1865, and for the sake of her sons' education, she settled in Windsor and sent them to Eton.

Windsor remained her home for the next 30 years. Hers would be a home full of dependants and visiting friends. Her cousin Annie L Walker (later Mrs Coghill) became her housekeeper and secretary in 1866. Her brother Frank suffered financial ruin in 1868, and moved with his family abroad, while leaving his son Frank with Mrs Oliphant, who sent him with her children to Eton to complete his education. Two years later her brother Frank became wholly dependent upon her after suffering a nervous breakdown on becoming a widower. He moved in with his two younger children, Madge and Denny. He died in 1875. In the same year Oliphant sent her two nieces to school in Germany, and Cyril to Balliol College, Oxford. Her promising, beloved nephew, Frank, had obtained a position in India after becoming a qualified engineer.

Sadly, four years later in 1879, Frank died in India, not long after his sisters Madge and Denny returned from Germany and continued their education in Windsor (Madge training as wood-engraver, Denny attending a boarding school). This same year Cecco joined Cyril at Balliol College. 1879 was also the year her first supernatural story was published, the highly acclaimed A Beleaguered City.

Neither of her sons achieved what their auspicious beginnings had seemed to promise. Bound by ill health (and a dangerous propensity to alcoholism and debt in the case of Cyril), neither seemed to justify her lavish expense in education. Oliphant would spend most of their adult life applying to acquaintances for positions for her sons. Both men would act as her editors at some point or other, and both would have some pieces published under their mother's patronage - Cyril a volume on Alfred de Musset in the series Foreign Classics for English Readers which Oliphant edited; Cecco a book on Jerusalem and the Holy Land; and Cecco also collaborated with her in the writing of her Victorian Age in English Literature. In 1884 Cyril obtained a position as private secretary to the Governor in Ceylon, but his ill health soon forced him to return to England, where he became once again economically dependent on his mother.

In 1890 she made her most ambitious research trip, to Jerusalem, accompanied by her sons and niece Madge. Cyril died that autumn. His brother Cecco would follow him in 1894, leaving Margaret utterly desolate. In the meantime both Madge and Annie L Walker had married, and only Denny remained with her, changing her name to Oliphant by Deed Poll that same year.

In 1896, finding her house in Clarence Crescent, Windsor too full of memories and far too big for just two women, Oliphant made her last move, to Wimbledon. Her cottage The Hermitage was just a short walk away from the house of her close friend Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Her last research trip, a fortnight long, was to Siena. She was already suffering from increasingly severe internal pains, later attributed to the cause of her death, cancer of the colon. Margaret Oliphant died in the midst of the celebrations for the Queen's Jubilee in June 1897. She was buried in Eton cemetery alongside her two sons.

As the “general utility woman” she called herself, it is indeed remarkable how deftly she could put her talented hand to almost any genre. Given perhaps her reluctance to revise her writings excessively, she is at her weakest as poet. As well as being a novelist, critic, and journalist, her favourite genre was biography, in which she excelled in the vivid portraits of her subjects' private lives, with an emphasis on the commonplace and quotidian. Many of her biographies were highly thought of by her contemporaries, such as The Life of Edward Irving (1862) and Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II (1869). Likewise her books on cities such as Florence, Rome, and Edinburgh abound with details of the local customs and everyday life: she would publish five such books. Her journalism covered most subjects of interest for the average Victorian reader, from reports of the London season to social commentary; from art to fashion (she did actually write a book on the subject, Dress ). Her literary criticism includes countless book reviews, two works on English literary history, and editorship of the series Foreign Classics for English Readers. She was also entrusted with the publishing history of the Blackwoods' firm, published in 1897 as Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and His Sons. Her journalism was mainly published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, but she also worked (in all professional facets) with many other publishers, among them Macmillan, whose dealings with Oliphant have been of interest to several recent critical studies (see Tuchman & Fortin, 1980; and Worth, 2003.)

Though most of her voluminous fictional output (98 novels, in fact) belongs to what we call domestic fiction, she did also successfully write in other genres, such as historical and regional novels. She is best known for her Chronicles of Carlingford, a series of two stories and five novels which began in 1861 with a short story “The Executor” serialised in Maga, later compiled in a single volume with “The Rector” and The Doctor's Family. These were followed by Salem Chapel, The Perpetual Curate, Miss Marjoribanks, and ended in 1876 with Phoebe Junior: A Last Chronicle of Carlingford. Her most celebrated novel in the series is Miss Marjoribanks (1865). Salem Chapel (1862) has sometimes been criticised for its sensationalist subplot, which for many critics sits awkwardly in an eminently realistic novel, but it was immensely popular. The most popular of her other realistic novels is Hester (1883). She turned to supernatural fiction relatively late in her career, starting with her acclaimed A Beleaguered City in 1879, and she succeeded in the genre, especially with the series of stories which would later be vaguely labelled as her Stories of the Seen and the Unseen. Her supernatural stories had mainly two types of settings: earthly ones where supernatural events take place (e.g, “The Library Window,” 1896, and “The Open Door,” 1882); and other-worldly settings perhaps inspired by Dante, whom Oliphant greatly admired (“The Land of Darkness,” 1887, and “A Little Pilgrim in the Seen and Unseen,” 1885).

Margaret Oliphant also wrote a series of autobiographical fragments originally meant for her sons, and which were compiled posthumously by her cousin as The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs M. O. W. Oliphant (1899), edited by Mrs Harry Coghill. That edition omitted about one quarter of Oliphant's original text. The Autobiography was republished in 1990 by Elisabeth Jay, who restored the full text.