SELECTED WORKS, PART II, ED. JOANNE SHATTOCK, ELISABETH JAY, LINDA PETERSON, TREV LYNN BROUGHTON, DAVID JASPER, FRANCIS O'GORMAN AND TESS COSSLETT by Margaret Oliphant, Reviewed by Elsie B. Michie
 

SELECTED WORKS, PART II, ED. JOANNE SHATTOCK, ELISABETH JAY, LINDA PETERSON, TREV LYNN BROUGHTON, DAVID JASPER, FRANCIS O'GORMAN AND TESS COSSLETT
By Margaret Oliphant
5 vols. (Pickering & Chatto/ Ashgate, June 2012) 200 pp.
Reviewed by Elsie B. Michie on 2013-03-10.

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The five volumes of this collection include V. Literary Criticism, 1887-97, ed. Valerie Sanders, Joanne Shattock, and Joanne Wilkes, xl + 571 pp; VI. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant (1899), ed. Linda Peterson, xxvii + 428 pp; VII. Writings on Biography I, ed. Trev Lynn Broughton, xxxi + 386 pp.; VIII. Writings On Biography II, ed. David Jasper, xxxi + 416 pp.; and IX. Historical Writing. ed. Francis O'Gorman and Tess Cosslet, xxii + 355 pp.

It may seem surprising that the editors of this collection chose to include literary criticism in a set of volumes that also contains autobiography, biographies, and histories. But Oliphant used each of these non-fictional genres in a similar manner; she presented the subject of her writing, even herself, as "a living chronicle" (5.47) that provided access to the mind of the past. One of the key texts she cites in all of these genres was Tennyson's In Memoriam, which, she explained in her autobiography, was "an embodiment of the spirit of this age, which . . . does not know what to think, yet thinks and wonders and stops itself, and thinks again; which believes and does not believe, and perhaps, I think, carries the human yearning and longing farther than it was ever carried before" (6.72). Reading history through the lens of literature in her reviews, shaping biographies that capture the personal tenor of existence, and compiling histories that bring to life the everyday details of the past, Oliphant prized authors who were "skilled in the art of fictitious portraiture" (5.103) because that was what she sought to practice. Valuing "this art of moral portrait-painting" (7.272), she produced an idiosyncratic and voluminous set of prose texts that invite modern critics to rethink the nature not just of nineteenth-century non-fiction but also of fiction as Oliphant conceived it.

Volume Five of Part II continues the selection of literary criticism already presented in Part I, which includes three volumes of literary criticism from 1854-69, 1870-76, and 1877-86. Because Oliphant was so prodigiously productive, none of these volumes includes all the critical essays she wrote in the period covered. Volume Five culls selections from work originally published between 1887 and 1897 in Blackwood's Magazine, Macmillan's Magazine, St. James's Gazette, and Atalanta. Rather than treating particular topics assigned by the periodicals, Oliphant was prominent enough by this time to choose her own topics and station: to mediate--from a particular point of view--on the state of the times as reflected in its literature. In a series of pieces titled "The Old Saloon," "A Fireside Commentary," "A Commentary from an Easy-Chair," "Things in General," and "The Looker-on," Oliphant marked the ending of a literary career that began in 1849. From this vantage she reviewed and assessed the relative merits of literature produced from the Romantic period to the end of the century.

For modern scholars the richness of these essays comes in part from the wealth of authors they examine, including --but not limited to--Tennyson, Percy Shelley, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Macaulay, Carlyle, Mill, Darwin, Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Vernon Lee, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, J. M. Barrie, Mathilde Blinde, Walter Pater, Grant Allen, Aubrey Beardsley, Coventry Patmore, Alice Meynell, George Du Maurier, Robert Burns, Christina Rossetti, George Meredith, Mary Howitt, Amy Levy, Rudyard Kipling, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Geraldine Jewsbury, Dina Craik, Matthew Arnold, Walter Scott, and Sarah Grand. The last pair marks the temporal range of Oliphant's interests, which run from 1817 and the founding of Blackwood's, the magazine with which she was most associated, up to the end of the nineteenth century, when, as she recognized, both literature and periodicals were radically changing. Written as the nineteenth century was approaching its end, these essays survey with extraordinary astuteness the literary movements in which her own work participated. Repeatedly returning to "all our supposed quickening of life in modern times" (9.20), she also insists that the intensities of past experiences can be recovered. When Oliphant exclaimed in her autobiography, "I wonder sometimes if what has been ever dies!" (6.87), she defined the task she set for herself in her prose writings: to resurrect through precise detail the living presence of people and places that might pass out of memory.

In following the volume of critical essays with three volumes of life writing and essays on biography, the editors underscore the importance of this genre to Oliphant, who announced satirically in her letters that, "I like biography. I have a great mind to set up that as my future trade and tout for orders" (6.123) and who, in "The Ethics of Biography," more seriously declared that "the art of biography is one of the oldest in the world--if not the first, at least a very early form of literary composition" (7.271). Insisting that the biographies set down in the Bible capture the spirit of the past, she stressed the biographer's responsibility to tell "the whole course and process of a life . . . not according to momentary and easily recognized tricks of manners, but according to the real scope and meaning which pervade and inspire it" (7.278). Fittingly, given this emphasis on inspiration, four of the five biographies in Volumes Seven and Eight are of religious figures: lives of the early Scottish clerics Edward Irving and Thomas Chalmers; of John Tulloch, principal of Saint Andrews, who dedicated to Oliphant his Movements of Religious Thought in Britain during the Nineteenth Century (1885); and of her cousin Lawrence Oliphant, the businessman and ambassador who particularly interested her because of his involvement with the Brotherhood of New Life--a charismatic religious sect--and his advocacy for the settlement of Palestine. The only biography not concerned with a religious or a Scottish subject is Richard Brinsley Sheridan; weakest of the pieces collected here, this book was clearly produced on demand rather than out of conviction.

Yet even Oliphant's biography of Sheridan reveals something evident not only in her other biographies but also in her autobiography: a tendency to cross the boundary between fact and fiction. Describing Sheridan's wife as "the Lydia Languish of real life" (8.8), Oliphant defines a historical person as a literary character, just as--in her biography of Chalmers--she imagines that George Eliot's creation of Milly Barton in Scenes of Clerical Life must have been "somehow" inspired by "the manse of Kettins" (8.133), where Chalmers spent his early years as a preacher. Likewise, she cites Tennyson in her biography of Irving, whose sermons, she wrote, drew flocks of Scottish ministers and parishioners. "With one wistful stroke of his magic pencil," she declared, Tennyson evoked "such a scene," which "must have been common enough in those days in that southland country" (7.106). Reversing the passage from biography to literature, Oliphant's essay on "The Sisters Brontë" argues that "the freedom" of Charlotte Brontë's "utterances in fiction" expresses her mind better "than the measured sentences of her letters" (7.306). Insisting that it is "a mark of greater strength to be able to put a living and recognizable person on the canvas than it is to invent one" (7.305), this essay lauds Brontë for the realistic portraiture that Oliphant herself also practiced, though less melodramatically, in both fiction and biography

She was perhaps clearest about the collusion between fiction and life in her Autobiography and Letters (1899), reprinted as Volume Six of this collection. Here she explains that she would not have represented her own life as she did if she "were not a novelist addicted to describing such scenes" (6.23). She thus explains why she dwells on "those family details that are interesting,--the human story in all its chapters" (6.90). For Oliphant such everyday details were the stuff of biography and history as well as of fiction. As she explains in describing her brother Frank leaving home, "There is an incident in one of my own books, in 'Kirsteen,' which is a sort of illustration of my feeling about him. It was not my own invention, but told to me as the family custom in the large, poor family which formed the model of the family in the book" (6.102). Convinced that the details of a portrait enable both fiction and biography to evoke the past, Oliphant also believed that these details enlivened her unorthodox way of writing history. In the pieces selected for Volume Nine--The Makers of Venice (1887), "Margaret of Scotland," and the introduction from Jerusalem, the Holy City (1891) -- she rejects neat chronology in favor of everyday details which, as she argues in the case of Giovanni Bellini, "illustrate this wayward, splendid, and futile humanity better than any history of development could do" (9.188). Of the epoch-changing events that she eschewed in her novels and non-fiction prose, she wrote: "History, indeed, makes more of these episodes than life does" (9.281). The closer history drew to fiction, the truer she thought it became. "There is a depth of human nature in the fable, " she wrote, "which the facts do not reveal" (9.53).

The diverse prose writings collected in these five volumes reveal a writer consciously working to record the lives and assess the writings of her contemporaries and precursors. Her verbal portraits display what she considered the genuine human nature of an era that she recognized as passing even as she depicted its personalities and surveyed its writings. Two of her images define the values that make her prose effective. In "The Ethics of Biography" she explains that "in every portrait the due value of differing surfaces and textures must be taken into account, and we must be made to perceive which is mere drapery and apparel, and which the structure of the individual beneath" (7.277). In the introduction to Jerusalem, the Holy City, she argues that "there are but two ways which I can recognize in literature of producing a recognizable and genuine human being: the one is by the tale of his life as it happened; the other is by the effort of genius conceiving and creating such a man, under great laws of truth to nature which cannot be transgressed" (9.329). In her periodical essays, biographies, and histories, Oliphant limned the individuals beneath the drapery, producing recognizable portraits of human beings and places. Rather than telling a tale of what happened, she sought to re-create individual lives that exemplified the nature of their time as she understood it. Gathering history, biography, and literary criticism along with fiction, the editors of this collection show how one extraordinarily prolific writer represented--in all its diversity--the spirit of her age.

Elsie B. Michie is Professor of English at Louisiana State University.


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