My Introduction to the Writings of Mrs Oliphant

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.

Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow’

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!


An Australian Girl by Catherine Martin (1890)

Catherine Martin was born on the Isle of Skye, late in the 1840s. Her family were poor crofters and some years later they emigrated to South Australia , alongside many other impoverished Highland families.

There were lessons for the children on the long, long voyage to Australia, and Catherine came to love language and literature.  Her education would continue in Australia; she became a teacher, she became a wife, she developed progressive views; she came to especially love German language and literature, and she began to publish poems and translations.

All of this would inform this book – her first novel – which was published anonymously in 1890.

‘An Australian Girl’ is the story of Stella Courtland. She was beautiful, articulate, and sociable; and she loved the world around her and all the things she could do in that world just as much as she loved her books and intellectual pursuits. She was one of the youngest children of a large family, most of her siblings had scattered, and only the youngest were left at home with their widowed mother. Stella was ready to fly, but she would never flout the conventions of society; she would always love her home, and she was able to travel to visit friends and family in different parts of South Australia.

I had to love Stella. She was a wonderful mixture of new woman and tradition heroine, and she was completely and utterly a woman of a particular time and place.

Edward Ritchie had been a childhood friend and he had become Stella’s most devoted suitor. He was a successful and wealthy pastoralist, and though he had no interest in books and learning himself he was happy for Stella to pursue whatever interests she had, to live however she wished, just as long as she would become his bride.

Their friends and their families thought that it would be a wonderful match; but Stella knew that she loved him as a friend and no more than that, and so she did her best to refuse his proposals without losing his friendship.

When Stella was introduced to a visitor from England, Dr Anselm Langdale, she knew that she had done the right thing. They shared the same interests, and they were perfectly matched, both intellectually and romantically.

Friends and family were unsure, but Stella was certain.

The trouble was that one person, Ritchie’s sister Laurette Tareling was unhappy with that match. She had serious financial and marital issues, she would do anything within her power to resolve them and claim the social position that she knew should be hers, and she wanted her brother safely married to Stella.

The story moves between Australia and Europe as it plays out, beginning as a classical Victorian drama, coming close to a sensation novel as it moves forward, and finally settling into a wonderful conclusion when Stella came to realise that she must make her own decisions and determine her own future.

There was an conventional route along which Catherine Martin could have steered her heroine, and I am so pleased that she didn’t, and that the route that she did take was influenced by the values that Stella was raised with as well as her own independent thinking.

Her story says much about the world that she lived in, how it had developed, how it might change in the future, and exactly what in meant to be an Australian woman in the latter years of the 19th century.

The writing is effective in many ways. It describes Stella’s world, especially the natural world that she so loves, wonderfully well. It captures conversations so well that I could hear them in my head. It allows me to understand her life, and to see and feel all of the things that she does.

The book as a whole though felt a little odd. The early chapters were almost entirely conversation, they were followed by a series of letters from Stella to her brother setting out all of the details of what she was doing, and then it settled into traditional storytelling.

I enjoyed the conversations, but I was anxious for the story to open out. I loved the letters, and they were so illuminating that I could forgive the fact that they fell into the kind of narrative that felt more like a book than a letter. I enjoyed what followed, but the prose lacked elegance, and the story didn’t flow as naturally as it might. There is nothing that I can say is wrong, but I can say that Catherine Martin is not as skilled a storyteller as the writers who influenced her.

The accounts of what Stella saw when she was doing ‘good works’ made me think of Dickens; many of the drawing room scenes made me think of Trollope; and some of the later drama made me think of Wilkie Collins …

That isn’t what will stay with me; what will stay with me is the story of a wonderful heroine and all that her story told me about her country.