Margaret Oliphant (1828-97)
For a few weeks now I’ve been sustained by two books, sometimes reading them at night, sometimes in the car as I sit next to Jim while he drives. One, Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, I’ve written about on Reveries under the Sign of Austen as having to do with the 18th century (she even quotes Austen on jigsaw puzzles centrally).
The other, Margaret Oliphant’s Phoebe, Junior, a final Chronicle of Carlingford (1876) I’ll write about here as the first of a (I hope) few postings on Oliphant as a great Victorian author.
Tonight I mean to recommend Phoebe Junior, the last of her Carlingford novels, a series of cyclical books written partly in imitatio of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and then set the novels against the background of her other remarkable books.
Cover illustration for Virago edition of Phoebe Junior: Victor Corcos (1859-1933), In a Garden
The novel swirls around the lives of several groups of characters connected through their religion, family, and place. They may be grouped by age, class status, and whether they are dissenters or church of England (establishment). The major figure is the young woman Phoebe Beecham (junior); her mother was Phoebe Tozer. Phoebe “junior” is a young woman brought up to be genteel since her mother got out of Carlingford and married a rising clergyman, rising in dissenter circles. Phoebe Junior is highly intelligent, discreet, and ambitious, at once kind and worldly, strong, capable of highly unconventional behavior. She is the alter ago for Oliphant herself.
The story begins when Phoebe’s grandmother Tozer falls very ill in Carlingford. Despite Phobe Senior’s strong reluctance to return her daughter to her lower class origins as the grandchild of storekeepers, rather than allow a sister-in-law and brother to get close to this grandmother and thus inherit needed money, Phoebe senior sends her Phoebe Junior back to Carlingford. Phoebe Junior is to nurse said Grandmother and live with said Grandfather — and keep other grasping relatives at a distance. By living with these shopkeepers (gasp!), Phoebe is coming down in the world and may not be visited by upper class people; she may end up isolated, and have no where to wear all the lovely clothes her mother can now provide for her.
We discover Phoebe Junior is a strong-minded young woman and can withstand having to go live with older people totally out of sympathy with her. She has strong self-esteem, but the theme here is one that appeals much to me: Oliphant makes it explicit: Says Mrs Sam Hurst (one of the older women characters in Carlingford itself): “That is all you know girls” [to the Mays], you don’t know the plague of relations, and how people have got to humble themselves to keep money in the family, or keep up appearances, espeically people that have risen in the world” (Virago ed, p 98).
Oliphant shows the elder Tozers to be irritating, continually nagging or bothering Phoebe to dress in ways she knows are inferior, never once convinced or moved out of their narrow thoughts. How she endures this I don’t know except that the social life elsewhere supposedly higher is not much fun either.
I would not call this satire, but rather hard depiction of realities and I’m not sure that one does have to humble oneself. Phoebe need not have gone. Her mother said so. They might have lost the money and could have done without it. Phoebe goes as a challenge; after all, like Lucilla (Miss Majoribanks, another of the Carlingford novels which I read half-way through) Phoebe hasn’t got much to do.
A second set of young women are the Mays: Ursula and Janey, and the interest (fascination) there is while they are members of the Church of England, by culture they are not very genteel, or no more genteel than the dissenters. In fact (though Ursula and Janey are unaware of it), they are on the edge of economic disaster. Ursula is very ordinary in understanding, even a bit dull, but most of the time well-meaning enough. She is not idealized either, not a bad sort, but imperceptive and egoistic. Ursula is decent to her younger sister, Janey, not out and thus cut off from any pleasure. Austen’s Elizabeth’s comment on the practice of not allowing young women who are the second in age to be “out” is germane here. It does not encourage sisterly feeling, but we see Janey and Ursula rise above jealousy. Oliphant is still making the same point about the unfairness of this.
In an opening sequence, at an assembly Ursula (all in white) and Phoebe (in black) to to a party set up and paid for by the wealthy dissenting older couple, the Copperheads. Phoebe and Ursula end up vying for the attention of Clarence Copperhead who is tall, heavy, and much duller than the other central young heroines and heroes of the novel, but, as is true in the world, sensitive enough about his own ego and pride, out to get what advantages, power, money, enjoyment he can out of life. Clarence perceives that Phoebe would make him the best wife. He is being sent by his father, Mr Copperhead for improvements in education to Ursula and Janey’s father, a Church of England Minister, Mr May.
Oliphant’s characterization of May and development of his character is the most powerful in the book. Cultivated, intelligent when it comes to books, an establishment gentleman, May doesn’t make enough money to support his genteel upper class lifestyle, and continually overspends. So he has been getting on for years by maneuvring someone beneath him, dependent on him, to sign his bills, and who is it but the wealthy grocer Tozer and another tradesman who needs his business and contacts, Cotsdean. May is actually nasty, narrow, and sordid in his human appetites, and only plausible in company (he pretends to respect and like Phoebe and fools her about this). Mrs Sam Hurst would be willing to marry this horror of a man. So would many another woman in the novel.
What Mr May has done is forge Tozer’s signature to a bill Cotsdead took for him to the bank. Like in Austen’s fiction, he is no ogre, and someone utterly in tune with the rest of social life (Phoebe doesn’t suspect anything of what his real mind and characters are). His crime recalls what Trollope’s Josiah Crawley is accused of but did not do.
Mr May has driven his son, Reginald, to take a position which is very like that of Trollope’s Mr Harding. Reginald will be a warden of six old man with a (smaller) sinecure. Reginald, handsome, perceptive, cultivated like his father, is the first of our young heroes. We see how difficult it is for a young gentleman to place in a way Trollope doesn’t quite bring home because Trollope usually doesn’t take us into this level of desperation and jockeying for position most of the time. (We do see it in The Three Clerks.) Reginald falls in love with Phoebe — a man of the church, in love with a female dissenter. But their educational level is the same, though Reginald is not as bright as
Horace Northcote, our second hero. Northcote is a brilliant honest dissenting young man, working for radical causes (the Liberation society) and has attacked Reginald for taking one of these sinecures, but his real target is the established church itself. He is better off financially than Reginald, but when we go for a walk with them to a beautiful church on the warden’s grounds we are made to see or feel the advantage Reginald has in sense of security and meaning to be placed in a world of centuries old art and tradition. Even if Reginald’s way of spending his days is among the ignorant individual poor, while Northcote seems to do higher political things, Northcote’s life is diminished by his not having connection to this tradition.
Now Northcote feels for Ursula; he sees her father, Mr May, bullying and harassing and embarrassing her by complaining about the meals he insists she concoct up for his resident pupil, Clarence Copperhead. Northcote feels such sympathy for Ursula. He is so attracted to her sweetness, he thinks he is in love with her, and begins to court her to her surprize, fear, and delight. Ursula does not love him equally in return because she is not capable of this, but she is alive to the power of the man’s mind and handsomeness, and possibility of a happy life with him.
Class issues are very painful in this novel, and they intersect with gender ones.
Cover illustration for Penguin edition of Miss Marjoribanks: James Tissot (1836-1902), The Rivals
The Copperheads are where we begin the story, with the assembly party they throw for other dissenters and which establishment people will come. Mr Copperhead, a bully of a man who has made huge sums, coarse, show-offy, vulgar, and determined to make everyone admire him for his money which in fact most do. He buys art to show the price he paid for it. He sends his son Clarence to be educated by May, and the son is taken in because May is desperate for the fee and possibilities of further money through the connection.
Mrs Copperhead’s wife is miserable with him: she is sensitive, perceptive and lives an isolated life with no outlet for a real friend. Her best moments are with her son, Clarence who dull as he is, does love her. She is kind and buys things for the May girls, but it’s shown that she gets a good deal out of buying said stuff. No one does anything just like this out of the goodness of their hearts even if they have more than another. Mr Copperhead was very irritated by Clarence dancing with Ursula and Phoebe all evening as neither have the high rank or big money he wants for his son.
A final set of characters fills out the triangulations Oliphant works with. The Dorsets, upper class establishment people who don’t have quite enough money to live wealthily but just manage. Mr Dorset does not forge or embezzle; he prefers to live within his straitened means and we see how this hurts his pride and yet how his pride makes him look down on the Copperheads, Mays (who are lower in rank) and certainly all the dissenters.
There are two young women in the Dorset family: Anne and Sophy Dorset. They live in London, are well educated and perceptive, sophisticated in outlook. With their parents, they are willing to be patronized by the Copperheads (go to their parties, accept their invitations); Mr Copperhead of course despises them, and they dismiss him in their hearts. Anne, who is not going to marry, is the best or nicest person in the story thus far, 30 years old. We see her devoting her hours to a niece and nephew sent from India and her brother’s children, partly because she needs to be needed. She has the best values of anyone in the story and is probably the most exploited in a daily hourly way. Sophy her younger sister (say around 28) was jilted when a young man she loved discovered her father, Mr Dorset had not cultivated his connections and has minimal means. She has not gotten over this. Anne is very kind to Ursula when Ursula comes to visit, and Ursula is aware of this, grateful and sticks up for Anne when anyone denigrates her. It’s at such moments we see Ursula at her best.
Oliphant is strongly anti-romantic (she made fun of Jane Eyre) and her heroine, Phoebe, chooses to marry for money and ambition rather than love. In so doing she helps save Mr May to whom she is grateful for having her in his house where she meets and is courted by both Clarence Copperhead and Reginald May. There too she makes friends with Ursula, Janey and Northcote.
Oliphant puts a hard truthful view of social life before us. It’s what I am loving this novel for this time round. What I objected to in Miss Majoribanks (and it made me unable to finish it) was the value put on it by Lucilla who we are to find dislikable — even if satirized Oliphant wouldn’t write a book about it if she didn’t value it at some level and sympathize with Lucilla’s aspirations to petty tyrannnies and power. (It’s an Emma novel.)
What I like in Phoebe Junior is there is a much larger perspective, with at at the same time I think actually more alienation as Oliphant really shows us how some people have better things in them that make them suffer so and also the larger social monsters responsible (Mr May, Mr Copperhead).
In this Carlingford series Oliphant had the idea of doing for the level below the gentry and church of England what Trollope did for them in Barsetshire. We rarely have shopkeepers’ as major characters, much less their daughters. We do not see dissenters in this way at all — there is no harsh satire on their religion, and they seem to like pleasure as much as the next person (something Trollope will not allow). But like say Anna Barbauld and Elizabeth Gaskell, she shows how social circumstances and a lack of respect drives the dissenters to change their attitude to their religion and emulate upper class ways of worship and attitudes.
Cover illustration for Virago edition of Salem Chapel: John Callcott Horsley (1817-1903), Madame se chauffe
So three young women: Phoebe Beecham, Ursula May and (probably) Sophy Dorset, all delineated psychologically so as to suggest how they cope and how they have gotten to the point where they have probably fates. I at first thought Clarence Copperhead would go for Sophy though he seems to care more for his mother and food than anything else; and predicted the bully vulgar Mr Copperhead may stop it if Sophy doesn’t refuse, or the father may be charmed by the high status, hard to say as money is what he values. If Sophy does marry him, it will not be for love but to have a husband with money and means for her and her sister In fact Copperhead goes for and wins Phoebe, rather easily due to his money and status). Three young men: Reginald May, Horace Northcote, Clarence Copperhread, carefully delineated so as to project psychological, social, economic, humane themes. As men they are plugged or can be directly in to the society; the women must plug into the men. Fascinating older people: Mr May, Mr Copperhead, Mrs Beecham (Phoebe’s mother), Mrs Copperhead (poor woman), the elderly dull lower class vulgar Tozers (grandparents). And the single woman, Anne Dorset reminding me of Trollope’s Priscilla Stanbury (the wonderfully intelligent spinster of strong integrity in He Knew He Was Right) only much sweeter and not going to end up in a miserable cottage since her father has status and enough to keep her.
I love Oliphant’s truthfulness. No one in the novel is imagined as altruistic really beyond what is in their interests; momentarily they can be kind, and they can be sexually attracted or admire someone for something they want, but not beyond that.
And the psychological portraiture is candid: Copperhead is the son of a fantastically rich man, and not a total fool, but no sensitive insightful gentleman; his looks are commonplace, even dull from the outside (this is very Trollopian — I remember John Ball in Miss Mackenzie).
There are some strongly feminist passages in the book too. Take Phoebe’s sarcasm to the young man’s complacent assumption of their superiority:
‘To be sure,’ said Phoebe, ‘we are not so clever as you are, and can’t do so many things. We know no Latin or Greek to keep our minds instructed; we acknowledge our infirmity; and we couldn’t play football to save our lives. Football is what you do in this season, when you don’t hunt, and before the ice is bearing? We are poor creatures; we can’t parcel out our lives, according as it is time for football or cricket. You must not be so severe upon girls for being so inferior to you.’
But as stronger impulse is showing the coldness, selfishness, pragmaticism, value of status, money, and prestige in all human nature. Here’s what Phoebe thinks when she decides to marry Copperhead:
Phoebe had nothing to appeal to Heaven about, or to seek counsel from Nature upon, as sentimental people might do. She took counsel with herself, the person most interested. What was the thing she ought to do? Clarence Copperhead was going to propose to her. She did not even take the trouble of saying to herself that he loved her; it was Reginald who did that, a totally different person, but yet the other was more urgent. What was Phoebe to do? She did not dislike Clarence Copperhead, and it was no horror to her to think of marrying him. She had felt for years that this might be on the cards, and there were a great many things in it which demanded consideration. He was not very wise, nor a man to be enthusiastic about, but he would be a career to Phoebe. She did not think of it humbly like this, but with a big capital Career. Yes; she could put him into parliament, and keep him there. She could thrust him forward (she believed) to the front of affairs. He would be as good as a profession, a position, a great work to Phoebe. He meant wealth (which she dismissed in its superficial aspect as something meaningless and vulgar, but accepted in its higher aspect as an almost necessary condition of influence), and he meant all the possibilities of future power. Who can say that she was not as romantic as any girl of twenty could be? only her romance took an unusual form. It was her head that was full of throbbings and pulses, not her heart.
Instead of dreaming of prince charming (no matter how poor you see), Phoebe dreams of marrying a man who will give her a place, prestige, and work in the world as a society and politicizing wife — in the way Lady Glencora Palliser tries to be in The Prime Minister. Oliphant knows this kind of aspiration is not one conventionally acceptable. The above tone is not sardonic, but rather earnest. Merryn Williams, one of Oliphant’s biographers, says many readers would find Phoebe’s lack of idealism and romance unpleasant — and choice of husband.
And Oliphant does not slide over the boredom of choosing to live with a stupid man:
He was stupid – but he was a man, and Phoebe felt proud of him, for the moment at least” and “He was a blockhead, but he was a man…
It’s even suggested that, although Clarence is a fool, Phoebe finds him quite physically attractive – he is said to be large and “not without good looks”, and there are descriptions of him putting his arms around her waist and lifting her up in the air.
I hope I have conveyed what is the peculiar strength and value of Oliphant’s Phoebe Junior.
Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), The Old Mill, near Winchester
I have written about Oliphant on the World Wide Web before: she wrote one of the best critical essays on Austen in the 19th century: her review of Austen’s nephew’s memoir, while unkindly mocking him, presented Austen for the first time as the satirical acid feminine presence D. W. Harding recognized her to be. She is also a writer of masterpieces in the ghost story kind, e.g., The Beleaguered Cityy= and “The Library Window”.
On Women Writers through the Ages, we read her great novel set in England, Hester (1883) where I wrote weekly about it. The heroine here is an older business woman and the hero her nephew. On my own I went onto her remarkable Scots novels, The Ladies Lindores (1883) and Kirsteen (1890). Her Autobiography as published by her niece (Mrs Harry Coghill), together with her letters to the Blackwell’s is one of the most powerful life-writings of the 19th century. She does not wear her heart on her sleeve, but as you read her candid account of her hard-working literary-art life you see how original a being she was. I wrote essays on these works too, so compelled did I feel to work out their meaning and urge others to read them too.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Lydia on the Terrace Crocheting
In general, there is a distinction between the presence Oliphant puts before us in her English, Scots and the ghost story-gothic novellas and short fiction. The irony in the English books (and that means the Carlingford) is distinctly pragmatic and concerned intensely with class and money — only Hester makes gender and romance as central and it’s the most powerful I think of all I’ve read thus far in Oliphant’s English mode.
In her Scots novels, she’s ironic and realistic or anti-romantic about different things. She places the books in Scots tradition (and herself is writing to critique and replace what she conceives of as Scott’s romancing and sentimentality about the lower classes in Scotland). She presents more landscape, more delving into culture and, more about women trying to achieve independence. There is dramatization of dangerous sexualities and murderous or atavistic violent impulses because she conceives they have more play in the less populated areas of the UK.
The ghost and gothics are not ironic in these ways at all. She lets loose and we are in a realm of the uncanny and she soars into poetry that is frightening and metaphysical. You might say they have dramatic irony as a structure.
Finally, her Autobiography is pure open poignancy, candour about her inner life, creative faculty, difficult career as a woman, and tragic loss of her husband, sons, nephew. Her literary criticism about her era and the 18th century is as insightful as you will find; she is an independent thinking deep feeling woman who survived by working long and hard (she wrote 126 novels). The end of her life was tragic in that those she loved all predeceased her, and the last line of her autobiography shows her breaking off, writing “I can no more.”
Illustration for Oliphant’s haunted and haunting “The Library Window”
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