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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)
 
MARGARET OLIPHANT WILSON OLIPHANT was born in Midlothian, in 1828, and published her first novel, ‘Some Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland of Sunnyside,’ at the early age of twenty. Since then, this prolific writer has given to the world some seventy romances; a large number of historical and critical essays; ‘English Literature at the End of the Eighteenth and Beginning of the Nineteenth Century’ (3 vols.); the ‘Victorian Age of English Literature’; the ‘Makers of Florence, Venice, and Rome’—designed as historical guide-books for the visitor to those cities; a good many short lives of artists and men of letters for different English series; and some half-dozen extensive and carefully studied biographies of famous men and women, which take rank with the best contemporary work in that important line.  1
  As a mere monument of industry, this library of a hundred-odd volumes would command respect; still more when we consider the high average level of literary excellence maintained throughout these many books. All are written with ease and natural eloquence, and some with charming spirit; while the truly extraordinary imaginative power displayed in a sketch like that of ‘The Beleaguered City,’ the nice critical discernment of many of the essays, and especially the keen yet sympathetic divination of human character and motive which gives their highest value to both the novels and the biographies, constitute an assemblage of qualities rarely associated in the same writer, and go to make up a noteworthy and almost unique life work.  2
  Many of Mrs. Oliphant’s earlier stories and essays appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine, to which she was for years a principal contributor. It was the picturesque tale of ‘Zaidee,’ published in 1856, which first revealed her peculiar vein of arch and quietly ironical humor. Mr. Ruskin was then at the summit of his grave ascendency over the romantic mind; but no one is more likely than himself to have relished the detailed description of Mr. Burtonshaw’s new house, which was provided, in deference to a recent recommendation of his own, with a species of richly sculptured spout through which articles of food were “shunted” to the beggars, for whom comfortable seats had also been provided under the back porch;—a process which went on to the satisfaction of all parties, until it was discovered that the family plate was rapidly disappearing by the same convenient channel.  3
  Seven years later, in the ‘Chronicles of Carlingford,’ we find Mrs. Oliphant at the height of her descriptive and dramatic power. Here, like Mr. Trollope in the ‘Chronicles of Barset,’ and George Eliot in ‘Middlemarch,’ she annexed and made her own a small province of English life, which she developed, thoroughly and delightfully, in all its grades of rank and shades of opinion. Good and bad, élite and vulgar, clergy and laity, the denizens of the ideal country town of a generation ago live and move amid their mellow old-fashioned surroundings, with all their curious and inevitable, yet often unconscious action and reaction upon one another. Mrs. Oliphant’s humor is at its richest in depicting the career of that great altruist and gallant social reformer, Lucilla Marjoribanks; and she has seldom struck a deeper note of tragedy than in the histories of the proud and persecuted young minister of Salem Chapel, and the Roman Catholic convert Gerald Wentworth. Some of her later tales, however,—as, for example, ‘The Story of Valentine and his Brother,’ ‘Sir Tom,’ ‘In Trust,’ ‘A House Divided against Itself,’ and ‘The Cuckoo in the Nest,’—are better constructed than the Chronicles, which are essentially novels of character rather than of plot. Her greatest fault as a story-teller has always been a tendency to over-minute analysis of motive and mood; and to an undue repetition of her own reflections upon her people, who are after all so thoroughly alive that they may usually be trusted to act and speak for themselves.  4
  The admirable ‘Life of Edward Irving’ appeared almost simultaneously with the earliest Chronicle of Carlingford. Mrs. Oliphant was now at the “half-way house,” and her power of characterization was fully ripe. She had, moreover, in this particular case, a very strong sympathy with her subject, and unusual qualifications for dealing with its difficulties. Herself a loyal Scot in race, and a born Presbyterian, she knew by instinct the sources of that strange spirit, and all the conditions of the bleak Lowland life into which it was born. The early struggles of Edward Irving, his piety and his ambition; the terrible test of his sudden and unparalleled London popularity, and that other test, no less terrible, of its abrupt decline; the grotesque fanaticism which invaded his originally healthful mind, and disgraced him irremediably with the world polite; the tragedy of his expulsion from the fold of his fathers, and of his early death in uttermost humiliation and sadness;—into all these experiences his biographer could and did enter without an effort. She perceived his desperate sincerity, and became his impassioned apologist; and in a narrative more thrilling than most of her fictions, she compelled the attention of a scoffing world. She must be held completely to have vindicated the blameless private conduct, and the perfectly disinterested purpose, of the eccentric founder of the so-called Catholic Apostolic Church. The life of Edward Irving was a triumphant piece of special pleading. That of Count Charles de Montalembert, published in 1872,—exactly a decade later,—shows abilities of a yet higher order; for it contains an exposition both lucid and dispassionate of an even more obscure bit of modern religious history. Mrs. Oliphant had become familiar with the man Montalembert while making her excellent translation of his monumental work on the Monks of the West; and she brought to the estimation of his fine character and conspicuous course, a thorough knowledge of the questions and controversies with which his name is identified, and an exquisite poise of judgment. It had always been a great puzzle to the Protestant mind, how the three famous men who led that untimely movement toward liberalism inside the Catholic Church, and gave the proud name of “The Future” to the short-lived journal which they edited,—how Lamennais, Lacordaire, and Montalembert could have been all that they were, and no more; all so revolutionary and two so reactionary. Mrs. Oliphant has virtually solved the enigma; and her account of the way in which Henri Lacordaire received the rebuff of the Holy See, when the three associates in the publication of L’Avenir had gone with so naïf a confidence to seek the papal sanction for their generous undertaking, strikingly illustrates her power of putting herself in the place of one whose conclusions are erroneous to her, and whose action she more than half deplores.  5
  Mrs. Oliphant has written three more biographies of unusual interest and merit: the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, of Jeanne d’Arc, and of her own distinguished kinsman, Laurence Oliphant. They may best be considered together, for her view of each of these curiously diverse careers is modified by a marked feature of her own mind,—her tendency, namely, toward religious mysticism. She is herself, apparently, deeply persuaded not merely of the reality of a future life, but of the existence, all about us, of a super-sensual scheme of things, having a perfectly definite though as yet unfathomed connection with the things which we see and hear. Into this mysterious region—so near and yet so far—our own loved ones vanish when they depart from us. What do they there become to one another, and what may they still be to ourselves? It is needless to say that Mrs. Oliphant has not answered this importunate question; but she has the air of having received light upon it, which she imparts in what may be described, collectively, as her Studies of the Unseen. The first, and altogether the most symmetrical and remarkable, of this series—which includes ‘Old Lady Mary,’ ‘The Little Pilgrim,’ and some others—appeared in 1880. It was called ‘A Beleaguered City,’ and purports to be the attested narrative of the maire and sundry citizens of the town of Semur in Haute Bretagne, of a singular series of events which at one time took place in that municipality. These amounted to no less than an invasion of the town by the innumerable souls of all its deceased citizens, and the expulsion in a body of the living, who remained encamped without the walls while the supernatural visitation continued. Nothing can surpass the verisimilitude with which this strange and powerful conception is wrought out. The energy of its first inspiration never flags. There is not an inconsistent occurrence, and hardly a superfluous word, in all the thrilling narrative. The French instinct in matters religious, so tender and genuine though so alien to our own, and the French turn of thought as well as expression, are faultlessly preserved. Here, for once, Mrs. Oliphant’s very style, so apt to be redundant and discursive, is perfect in its direct simplicity. It is her highest literary achievement; a sacred poem in prose, which shakes the soul at the first perusal almost with the force of an actual revelation.  6
  It is easy to see that to a mind capable of such a conception, both the visions of St. Francis and the “voices” of Jeanne d’Arc would possess a peculiar interest; and that Mrs. Oliphant would not be disposed to regard either from a strictly rationalistic point of view. She does not pretend to do so; but while clearly avowing her own belief in the direct Divine guidance of both the saint and the martyr, she searches the best sources of information concerning the material and mundane side of their careers, in the most patient and critical spirit of modern inquiry. This is especially the case in the life of Jeanne d’Arc, where the but recently published ‘Procès’ is followed step by step, and the defense of the supposed sorceress is allowed to rest almost entirely on her own artless and solemn asseverations. Nor has Mrs. Oliphant ever shown herself more truly judicial than in her manner of apportioning the responsibility for the hideous and cowardly crime of Jeanne’s murder, between the vindictive English authorities of the day and the Maid’s own faithless countrymen.  7
  In describing the strange career of that most modern-minded of mystics, her own far-away cousin Laurence Oliphant, our author had to deal with the problem of a soul’s destiny under strikingly novel conditions. But though she cannot repress her honorable scorn for the element of vulgar charlatanry in the self-styled Prophet, at whose bidding Laurence Oliphant, his mother and his wife, sacrificed so much, her testimony is no less clear and unhesitating than in the case of the mediæval devotees, to the reality of that higher life for which they gladly lost all that is supposed to render this life desirable to highly civilized creatures. This testimony is, in fact, Mrs. Oliphant’s true message to the world; and in bearing it she but ranges herself with the chief seers of her own generation,—with Tennyson and with Browning, both of whom departed from an unbelieving world with the word of faith upon their lips.  8
  For the rest, the ‘Life of Laurence Oliphant’ is upon the whole the ablest of the three biographies which have here been grouped together. The author touchingly acknowledges, in her preface, the assistance in preparing it of her gifted son, Francis Oliphant, whose early death has been one of the heaviest sorrows of her later years. But to dwell on the number of those years, or anticipate the hand of time, would be both ungrateful and impertinent in the readers of one whose power of sustained production has proved so very exceptional, and whose natural force is apparently quite unabated.  9
  [This was written before Mrs. Oliphant’s death. She died June 25th, 1897, after this article was in type.]  10
 
 
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