I’ve been aware of Mrs Oliphant for a long time, I was sure she would be my kind of author, but it’s taken me a while to start reading
I have the books that Virago published, I have one or two others in older editions, and when I heard an radio adaption of one of the books in the Carlingford Chronicles at the very end of last year I was smitten.
I resolved to start reading as soon as I had finished my journey through Trollope’s Barchester books.
I didn’t stop to think that Mrs Oliphant was a prolific author, a woman who worked hard at her writing to support her family and maintain their position in society, and that there were other, different books that I might have tried in the meantime.
Fortunately though, fate took a hand.
When I was wandering around my local independent bookshop with a book token to spend before I lost it or forgot about it, I spotted a Persephone Book with Mrs Oliphant’s name on the spine!
It came home, of course it did!
The book contains two well matched stories: ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’ and ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond.’ The stories are distinctive, but they consider the same themes and questions, and I would have easily identified them of the work of the same author, had I had been reading unmarked copies.
The stories are striking because they appear at first to be conventional tales, but they subvert convention by taking a marriage and dismantling it, finding a resolution in the end of a marriage, rather than ending with a marriage that suggests that there will be a happy ever after.
Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon (The Queen Eleanor of the second story) are both strong and capable women who are faced with difficult situations, and the both endeavour to do the right thing, to protect their children from unhappy knowledge, and to ensure that those children can take their places in society without any stain of gossip or scandal.
I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant told me about them. Her narrative voice was engaging, it was warm and wise, and I never doubted for a moment she was telling those stories not because they held wonderful potential for gossip, but because she believed that they said much about the difficulties that a woman whose marriage was less than happy might have to contend with, how society’s expectations and conventions might constrain her choices, and how she might prevail by doing ‘the right thing’ for herself and her children.
It wasn’t difficult and it didn’t take long to work out what Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery was, but I won’t give it away. Her situation was at least in part of her own making, she had acted foolishly, but the price that she might have to pay was disproportionate.
I loved the way that Mrs Oliphant used the trappings of the sensation novel when she told this story, and I appreciated the way she positioned her characters. There was one in particular who was held back until the story was nearly over, and then he was used so effectively …
There were large plot holes in this story, but I was so caught up with Mrs Blencarrow’s concerns that I didn’t really think about them until that story was over; and even then I was more inclined to think about the what had happened, what might have happened, and how very important the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 had been!
Mrs Lycett-Landon’s story was rather different. She had been a good wife who made a happy home for her husband and children, and he had been a reliable husband and a loving father, until he made excuses to stay away from home and out of contact for rather too long.
When his wife set out to find him she realised that though she wanted her children to have a father she didn’t miss being a wife, and when she found him she realised that drawing him back to her family would cause a great deal of hurt to people who were part of his world but not part of hers.
What was she to do, and how ever could she keep her children safe and secure?
This story was more simply told, and the emotions were simpler and more profound.
I was impressed by Mrs Lycett-Landon’s decisions and actions, and though it seems unbelievable that she was able to keep what she had to secret from her children and the wider world I was very glad that she did.
Looking back, I have to say that these stories both have weaknesses, but the storytelling, the momentum of the stories, and the things that they made me think about allowed me to forgive that.
I can’t say that this is one of my favourite Persephone books, but I do understand why it was added to the list.
I’m delighted that I’ve finally met Mrs Oliphant, and I think that she and I are going to get along rather well!