Academic journal article
By d'Albertis, Deirdre
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 37, No. 4
Demands for entry into the workplace, along with legal and educational reforms, it is commonly supposed, signaled the advent of modern-day feminism in mid-Victorian Britain. Not all middle-class women who worked to support themselves endorsed the notion of collective action, however, or even collective interest in the realm of employment. Margaret Oliphant, reviewing the memoirs of Anna Jameson and Fanny Kemble, turned an 1879 Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine article into a manifesto for independent women who eschewed political feminism, declaring with palpable exasperation: "whenever it has been necessary, women have toiled, have earned money, have got their living and livings of those dependent upon them, in total indifference to all theory."(1) Like Oliphant herself, they might be left a "'widow woman' with her 'sma' family' - and there is scarcely any one who is not acquainted with two or three specimens of this class."(2) A middle-class woman who works, Oliphant suggests, need not be a feminist or attend to theories of women's employment; indeed, she "has not waited for any popular impulse, poor soul, to put her shoulder to the wheel, nor has stopped to consider whether the work she could get to do was feminine, so long as she could get it, and could get paid for it, and get bread for her children."(3 From the very beginning of history, observes the indignant reviewer, these were the ones who "managed to keep their heads above water, and did their work, though with little blowing of trumpets."(4) Women's work, in her eyes, was no great advance, no cause for political debate, but rather, to quote Oliphant's contemporary Charlotte Bronte, "something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto."(5)
While Oliphant's outburst stands as an excellent example of what Elizabeth Langland has described as her "practical feminism," it also introduces a puzzle if we want to account for an implicit theory of work the author hopes to advance.(6) The problem arises because Oliphant, although willing to invoke the sacred properties of motherhood, wanted to isolate this domestic ideal - disregarding altogether other features which did not suit her - in order to sanction her professional activities (for all her ambition, she is merely getting "bread for her children"). Moreover, her claim as an impoverished widow to work only for survival is compromised by chronology. Oliphant's first novel was published in 1849, she married in 1852, her first child was born in 1853, and her husband died in 1859, meaning that the novelist was writing for profit a good ten years before she was left alone to fend for her family. Equally perplexing is the way in which Oliphant's upending of certain convenient binarisms - public/private, domestic/economic, mass fiction/literary art - complicates our understanding of Victorian culture and the place she was able to obtain for herself within that culture as a woman of letters. We might be inclined to dismiss Oliphant as anomalous, or better still, incorporate her as a negative example of the rule of gender difference that organized her society. Yet her market-driven domestic writing, I would contend, represents an exception that should spur us to reconsider a rule that has prevented us for some time from really reading "Mrs. Oliphant."
In spite of her claims to a sober and all too intimate experience of toil (as a reviewer, she was notoriously harsh on other authors' excessive claims to industry), Margaret Oliphant managed to discover, exploit, and even enjoy the epic dimension of literary hackwork and drudgery.(7) Legendary in the annals of nineteenth-century publishing is the stamina and drive of a writer - she published upwards of one hundred and twenty books between 1849 and 1897 - far less frequently remembered than either Dickens or Trollope for the same quality of seemingly endless productivity.(8) Like Trollope, she left behind an autobiography published posthumously to memorialize the copious invention she brought to English letters. …