Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant: a warning from history

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, more real graphs from Google Ngrams and a warning from history from Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant.

Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 and grew up in what many would argue was a golden age in English Literature: Dickens, Thackerary, Gaskell, Trollope, Hardy, the Brontes, Eliot and Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Wilson Oliphant: she married her cousin Francis Wilson Oliphant in 1852), 1828 – 1897. Her entry in the Dictionary of National Biography compared her novels to those of George Eliot, particularly the four novels in her series Chronicles of Carlingford. Margaret Oliphant’s Ngram looks like this:

Whereas George Eliot’s Ngram looks like this:

Search for George Eliot on the BBC shop and you are given the chance to buy one audiobook and four DVDs. Search for Margaret Oliphant and you are given thirty eight results which contain the word “elephant.” Clearly something odd is happening in the zeitgeist

Yet Margaret Oliphant was a profitable, popular and prolific author. After the success of Salem Chapel, the publisher Mr Blackwood paid her £1500 for The Perpetual Curate (worth  £104,000 in 2011 according to MeasuringWorth.com), much to the horror of his cashier. According to the online At the Circulating Library – a database of Victorian Fiction, she was, with 62 serialised titles, the most prolific of serial authors; and with 100 titles, she was the most prolific of authors, full stop. Of the authors mentioned above only Trollope makes it into any of these categories, coming in at number five  in Most Prolific Authors with 52 titles.

Of the previous generation of writers, Sir Walter Scott, is often presented as an author driven to write by circumstances, a necessity which, we all know, finally killed him. Scott’s biographer, John Gibson Lockhart, wrote of a party at the Edinburgh home of William Menzies, a Supreme judge at the Cape of Good Hope. A friend asked him to swap seats because he had had enough of watching the hand of a writer hidden in some corner of the room fill page after page without pause. Some stupid clerk, replied someone in the party.  The host quietly reprimanded them by saying “No, boys. I well know what hand it is—’tis Walter Scott’s.” Lockhart finished the anecdote by adding “…this was the hand that, in the evenings of three summer weeks, wrote the two last volumes of Waverley.” However, with his 64 titles as listed by the Dictionary of National Biography, Scott would have come a distant fourth to Margaret Oliphant in the category of Most Prolific Authors in At the Circulating Library.

Like Sir Walter Scott, Margaret Oliphant was obliged to write. Living in Rome because of her husband’s poor health, she was widowed in 1859, in debt to the tune of £1000 (£78,000 in 2012) and pregnant with her third child. Returning to Rome in 1864, she was faced with the further grief of losing her daughter, followed shortly by the return of her recently widowed brother from Canada with his three children, all of whom she took into her home, charging herself with their care and education. Given that they were to be educated at Eton, the money she earned from her multi-volume series was always quickly spent: as the author of her entry in the DNB put it “…her life might have been described as slavery to the pen, if writing had not been a real enjoyment to her.” Her two sons, despite their privileged education, never amounted to much; they died before she did without accomplishing anything of note. She died, after a journey to Sienna, at the age of 69. A few days before her death she had even managed to compose a few lines in honour of Queen Victoria’s jubilee.

Of her 100 titles, Bennett included one in Literary Taste, Salem Chapel. Of George Eliot’s eight, he included five. This is not the place to dispute the statement that although the works of both were comparable, the mind behind Margaret Oilphant’s novels was “…manifestly of less intellectual calibre.” But she was of sufficient importance and held in high regard during her lifetime to have caused Robert Louis Stevenson to charge in on his friend Harry Moors, excitedly waving a sheet of paper in the air, crying out  that he  “…would never guess, if I gave you all morning, who it is who has at last admitted me to be in the front rank of my profession. It is Mrs Oliphant, my dear sir – Mrs Oliphant!” Like the Victorian penny dreadfuls, she seems to have, if not disappeared from the literary zeitgeist, to have slipped far to one side, hidden by the bustles of George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell’s dresses; and like the penny dreadfuls she seems to play only a small part in our conception of the varied forms taken by Victorian literary culture; and like the copy of Marvel’s Avengers No. 1 I bought on Sunday, she is there somewhere in that pliable, personal and subjective entity, known as literary taste.

Coming soon, Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate.

NB.

I did not of course of buy a physical copy of Avengers No. 1. As this rather splendid graph shows, even adjusting its 1963 cover price of 12¢ to its 2011 equivalent of 86¢, makes little difference when comparing with the $4,299.99 being asked for a first edition on sale on eBay. I bought it instead from the online comiXology for 1.59€.

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2 Comments

  1. During my research for “Reading around my area” I came across Margaret Oliphant for the first time. It is true she really was prolific, writing frequently to keep her family’s head above water, but there is some argument to suggest she could have been as good as George Elliot had she been allowed the time to refine her work. She visited this area a good deal between 1888 and 1895 to stay with her friend Mrs Rogerson who ran a home for deprived London slum children here in the Surrey countryside. Her book “The Cuckoo in the Nest” is set in the Hindhead area (home to Arthur Conan Doyle, as you know). It’s amazing what you find out when you start looking!
    On another note, “Waverley” by Walter Scott was said to be inspired by the nearby Waverley Abbey, although this is a popular supposition, it seems unlikely.
    Great graphs btw!

    Reply
  2. The Spanish have a saying “el mundo es un pañuelo” – literally: the world is a handkerchief, which we would translate as “it’s a small world.” It’s just as much a cliche in Spanish as a in English, but only because it’s true. I enjoy greatly how these blogs can lead to links being made and light shone on little dark corners that perhaps have no academic value but nonetheless should not be forgotten. Margaret Oilphant was a novelist, historian, respected reviewer and only now is being given the critical due she deserves. I’ll be reading one of her novels for this blog and see how she compares with George Eliot.
    Thanks for getting in touch with the results of your researches. Glad you enjoyed the graphs. Be careful of the Ngrams, they are addictive!

    Reply

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