Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"We Who Have Been Bred upon Sir Walter": Margaret Oliphant, Sir Walter Scott, and Women's Literary History

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"We Who Have Been Bred upon Sir Walter": Margaret Oliphant, Sir Walter Scott, and Women's Literary History

Article excerpt

As A LITERARY CRITIC, Margaret Oliphant was not easily impressed, even by the greatest offer contemporaries. Her publisher John Blackwood gently advised bringing a little more warmth to an evaluation of Dickens' fiction published shortly after his death; her praise of George Eliot, a writer whom in general she admired highly, was also often qualified by doubts and reservations. (1) If there was an author who came near to escaping such ambivalence it was not any of the great Victorians, but Oliphant's countryman and predecessor, Sir Welter Scott. Even though she was not entirely uncritical when writing about him--she found his poetry rather facile and regretfully admitted that such late works as Count Robert and Castle Dangerous might have been better left unwritten (2)--Scott and his fiction seemed to exemplify, far Oliphant, the highest qualities that could be demanded of a writer. Indeed, in her three-volume Literary History of England 1790-1825 she identified Scott as one of the most significant contributors to what she saw as the dramatic transformation of literature that took place over those thirty-five years, a judgment implicitly reinforced in her later history of Blackwood's publishing house. Nor was Scott's influence a matter of historical interest to Oliphant; he is as central to her imaginative writing as he is to her work as a literary historian. While her early Scottish tales arguably owe as much to such figures as John Gait and John Wilson as to Scott, and her most famous mature work is about English provincial life, her children's books on Scottish history are steeped in Tales of is Grandfather and her 1890 novel Kirsteen recalls Scott on a number of levels. There is, of course, nothing less surprising than that a Scot of Oliphant's generation would admire and be influenced by Sir Walter Scott. Yet given the way in which Scott was praised in his own lifetime and immediately afterwards for what was supposedly his powerfully sculme influence on fiction, Oliphant's intense and continuing interest in his work is noteworthy. As a writer of both history and fiction, Oliphant demonstrates in her responses to Scott how women writers were able to make a place for themselves in a literary tradition in which even they saw men as the pre-eminent figures.

In some ways, Scott poses obvious problems for a nineteenth-century woman attempting to write a literary history that makes room for her own work. While it is important not to oversimplify Scott's reception, which has recently attracted detailed and sophisticated analysis, and while Scott himself freely and frequently admitted the influence of his women predecessors and contemporaries, his novels were often sharply distinguished from the work of the mainly female novelists of the generation before and contemporary with him. The idea that with Scott "[t]he novel gained a new, authority and prestige" as "it was no longer in danger of becoming the preserve of the woman writer and the woman reader" has a fairly long history. While the phrases Just quoted appear in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Wavertey (first published in 1972), the sentiment is similar to views expressed by Scott's first reviewers. As Ina Ferris has shown in her influential Achievement of Literary Authority (199x), early nineteenth-century writing about Scott tended to present him as a "manly genius," appealing to "readers as precisely not female readers (whatever their biological gender may be)" (81, 83). (3) Similarly, Ian Duncan states bluntly that Scott was the "personification of a new patriarchal dignity of authorship" and even points out that "[t]he use of male pseudonyms by women authors ... can be dated with some precision from the time of Scott's death" (17). More recently and more generally, Clifford Siskin has argued that not just Scott but the wider literary society of early nineteenth-century Edinburgh contributed to what he sees as a "remasculinization" of literature (see, for example, 224-5). …

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