decorated initial 'M' argaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (1828-1897) was born in Wallyford, East Lothian, just outside of Edinburgh. Though she moved with her family to Liverpool in 1838, she continued to identify with her Scottish heritage, particularly the Oliphant family roots. Oliphant began writing in 1844 and continued steadily until her death in 1897. Passages in the Life of Margaret Maitland, her first published novel, appeared in 1849 and gained her some recognition as a weaver of provincial tales. Though Oliphant never earned the reputation of Charles Dickens or George Eliot, she was reputed to be Queen Victoria's favorite novelist and left a literary and critical legacy that persists today.

The two themes that characterize Oliphant's life and writing are her personal sorrow and her immense literary production. Married in 1852 to her cousin Frank Oliphant, Margaret out-lived her husband, who passed away in 1859, as well as her seven children. Oliphant was most affected by the deaths of her beloved daughter Maggie in 1864, and by the deaths of sons Cyril (Tiddy) in 1890 and Francis (Cecco) in 1894, her only children to survive to adulthood. In addition to her own children, Oliphant supported her alcoholic brother Willie and, after his bankruptcy in 1868 and the death of his wife in 1870, her brother Frank and his three children.

Oliphant credited this network of dependent relations as the primary motivation for her literary output. Over the course of her career, Oliphant published nearly one hundred novels novels, and innumerable other works of fiction and nonfiction. Because she never had the financial savvy to save, Oliphant was constantly under pressure to produce for publication. As a result, she has often been criticized for producing too much too quickly, an accusation she both supports and defends against in her posthumously published Autobiography (1899).

The close relationship that Oliphant formed with the Blackwood family in 1851 helped her to stay financially solvent. In additions to loans given on the security of future works, the Blackwoods gave Oliphant various assignments for their publishing house and magazine, including a biography of Edward Irving, translations of Count de Montalbert's work, and the history of the publishing house itself.

Blackwoods Magazine also published Oliphant's best-received novels, the Chronicles of Carlingford. Modeled at least in part on Trollope's Barset Chronicles, these tales sketch the religious and domestic politics of the provincial community of Carlingford. Among this series are Salem Chapel, Oliphant's sensation novel, and Miss Marjoribanks, the most popular and most often reprinted of Oliphant's novels.

Late in life, Oliphant wrote a series of supernatural short stories called Tales of the Seen and Unseen. Most notable among these shorter works is the novella A Beleaguered City (1879). These stories feature ruptures of the supernatural into the real world, often as a result of tragedy and grief. Work on Oliphant attributes these tales to Oliphant's own sorrow at the loss of her children and to the subsequent other-worldly experiences Oliphant had—moments of intense peace and detachment.

Because of the breadth of her work, ascribing a particular set of characteristics to Oliphant's writing is difficult. However, her style, particularly in the Chronicles of Carlingford, is characterized by sharp wit and an omniscient narrator. Oliphant most often turns her eye to issues of gender and class, especially as they intersect with one another and with religion, and her attachment to her Scottish roots often surfaces in her texts through Scottish characters if not entirely Scottish settings.

In addition to her own posthumously published Autobiography, in which recollections of Oliphant's past are interrupted by emotional traumas of her present, Elisabeth Jay, Robert and Vineta Colby, and Merryn Williams all have published scholarly biographies of Oliphant.


Victorian Web Overview Margaret Oliphant

Last modified 20 October 2003