A Question of Identity: Women, Science, and Literature

By Marina Benjamin | Go to book overview

Science and the Supernatural in the Stories of Margaret Oliphant

Jenni Calder

For half a century Margaret Oliphant wrote fiction, biography, essays on a huge range of topics, book reviews, travel books, history, and literary history. She was a writer of robust and penetrating intelligence, commenting forcefully and sometimes acerbically on many of the major issues of her time. Although she had some popularity during her lifetime, after her death in 1897 her books rapidly disappeared from the scene. And although she had had her admirers, among them Henry James, that admiration did not survive.

Insofar as her achievement is being currently acknowledged it is mainly as a writer of realist fiction, and there are about half a dozen novels of her vast output that show her at her best, observing and analyzing human relationships and their physical and emotional contexts. She had a particularly profound understanding of the predicament of women of energy and ability who were fenced in by convention and prejudice. But she also wrote short stories, and these approach both the physical and the emotional in a rather different way. In them, and in her short novel A Beleaguered City ( 1880), she explores vulnerable areas of feeling and belief, testing the powers of faith and the imagination against the intellectual infrastructure that was being put into place through the nineteenth century. That infrastructure was almost entirely the work of men.

In her fiction Oliphant repeatedly characterizes men as either obtuse and bullying, or limp and ineffectual. In most of her fiction the lives of women are curtailed by the attitudes and edifices of men: although many of her heroines try, few succeed in breaking out. They are caught equally by male dominance and by male inadequacy. In her stories, less driven by the demands of the market (her books were the sole means of support of Oliphant, her children, and several of her

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