Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Oliphant Becomes a Heroine: Tracing a Literary Tradition

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Margaret Oliphant Becomes a Heroine: Tracing a Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

Throughout her career as a novelist and critic, Margaret Oliphant showed great interest in the emergence of a female literary tradition, and particularly the creation of the heroine. In her criticism she identifies Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot as innovators. Her commentary on these writers, scattered across several of her essays and reviews, reveals her admiration for the way these women advanced the female literary tradition. Oliphant's critique of sensation fiction, the subject of much subsequent commentary, is actually directed not at the genre itself but at the focus on physical passion. Oliphant feared that readers, especially younger readers, might be negatively influenced by this skewed portrait of femininity. That same fear motivates her harsh assessment of Hardy's Jude the Obscure. While Oliphant the critic was establishing principles by which to judge women's fiction, Oliphant the novelist was working to secure her own place in the tradition, crafting novels that are in some ways models for and critiques of the tradition in which she hopes to find a place.

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In her 1882 Literary History of England, Margaret Oliphant identifies the early nineteenth century as a period that saw the simultaneous rise of the novel and rise of female literary artists: "But the opening of an entirely feminine strain of the highest character and importance--a branch of art worthy and noble, and in no way inferior, yet quite characteristically feminine, must, we think, be dated here in the works of these three ladies" (206-7). The novels of Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Susan Ferrier provide the evidence for her claim, and Oliphant devotes an entire chapter to their works, arguing for the importance of a new, feminine approach to fiction in which women are depicted as round and complex characters. The emergence of a female literary tradition is one that interested Oliphant, and her writings betray a complicated attitude toward this tradition as she tried to both articulate it broadly for the readers of her critical works and negotiate her own place within it as a prolific woman novelist. Oliphant appears to have used her writing, specifically her critical essays, as a way to think through her ideas, and she had ample space for this in the more than 400 pieces she published in periodicals including Blackwood's, St. James's Gazette, and The Spectator, among many others. Thus, a comprehensive account of her views on fiction and the development of the novel is beyond the scope of a single essay. However, looking at her criticism of several women novelists reveals a specific, sustained interest in the evolution of the heroine and the rights and responsibilities of women's fiction.

Over the course of her career, Oliphant charted the distinct progression of women's fiction--particularly with regard to the development of women characters--and chafed against what she saw as negative influences on the genre. Oliphant's critical essays on nineteenth-century novels suggested that women's fiction was on a forward-moving and progressive path that needed to be carefully guarded against certain kinds of incursions. Specifically, she demonstrated how the heroine evolved from Jane Austen's novel of domesticity to Charlotte Bronte's passionate Jane Eyre to George Eliot's female philosophers. In contrast, the fleshly and lustful sexuality of much sensation fiction as well as, most notoriously, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, threatened the positive evolution of female characters and could have negative implications for readers. The sanctity of readership and the ability of fiction to influence culture was a common theme for Oliphant and lent additional gravitas to her arguments about the characterization of women. As a novelist herself, who was often very self-conscious about her status, Oliphant brought multiple perspectives to bear upon this tradition in which she hoped to find a place.

Oliphant's interest in a tradition of women's writing is apparent from her critical attention to women writers of a generation preceding her own. …

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