The two short novels in this volume are surprisingly un-Victorian. Each ends, not with a marriage as is usual, but with the break-up of a marriage. Each is about the terribly destructive effects of middle-aged passion.
Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (1828-97) was a once very famous writer, now much underrated. Most of the great nineteenth-century women novelists - Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot - were childless. Mrs Gaskell had four daughters, but she also had a husband with a job. Mrs Oliphant was a single mother and the family breadwinner for most of her adult life.
All agree that she was an impressive woman. Contemporaries spoke of her dignified but extremely witty presence, her prematurely white hair and intense dark eyes, her habit of mixing freely by day and working for most of the night. ‘She was of an intellect so alert’, wrote J.M. Barrie, ‘that one wondered she ever fell asleep’. It was noticed, too, that she never complained about the many tragedies in her life. The novelist Howard Sturgis, who was at Eton with her sons, recalled, ‘She had a friend .... who was always big with sighs over her own departed happiness, and the cruelty with which the world had used her; and I remember even as a boy dimly apprehending the contrast between the two women, the greater nobility of Mrs Oliphant’s attitude towards the past’.
Growing up in Liverpool with her Scottish parents, she discovered by the time she was twenty-one that she could make an income by writing, and from then on she hardly ever stopped. She married her cousin Frank Oliphant, a gifted artist, but they were probably not very happy, and three out of six babies died. When she was thirty-one Frank also died, of tuberculosis, leaving her to support her surviving children by grinding out novels and articles at a horrifying pace. Altogether she published one hundred and twenty-five full-length volumes (not to mention innumerable essays and book reviews). Not surprisingly, most of them are forgotten, but a few of her novels and short stories deserve to be remembered, including these.
Whenever her life seemed to be getting better, something went wrong. Her eldest child Maggie died at the age of ten; perhaps she was the inspiration for Mrs Blencarrow’s beloved, delicate daughter. And then her brother, Frank Wilson, a respectable family man of fifty-two, appeared to go mad. After working for many years at a bank in Birkenhead, he lost, or perhaps stole some money, and decamped to France without his wife and children. ‘It seems as if they must break out - as if common life and duty become insupportable’, as a character in 'Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond' says wearily about middle-aged men. Margaret immediately paid his debts and took responsibility for him and his family. She would care for them, as well as her own two sons, for the rest of their joint lives.
The two stories were written in the late 1880s, when she had been a widow for many years and her brother had died. She was living in Windsor, round the corner from Queen Victoria, and looking after four young people in their twenties and thirties - two nieces and her sons, who behaved badly and never found jobs. She had no fixed income but was forced to write many millions of words in order to support them. Her responsibilities, like Mrs Blencarrow’s, were very great.
You will not have had much trouble solving this particular mystery. It is obvious that the mistress of the house has married one of her own servants, whose name happens to be Brown. What sophisticated readers would have known is that the story is based on the life of Queen Victoria, who, after Albert died, became devoted to her groom, John Brown (1826-83). He was a good-looking but rough sort of man, seven years younger than the Queen - but that was the least of her problems - whose roots were in the Scottish working class. She doted on him; he treated her quite unceremoniously. Their relationship (dramatised in the 1997 film 'Mrs Brown') was probably platonic, but that did not stop people claiming that they were secretly married or having an affair. Her children were furious and her courtiers appalled. If she had openly married him there would have been a monumental scandal and she might even have been certified insane.
Margaret Oliphant knew the gossip and had met the Queen occasionally. Years earlier she had felt impatient with her very public mourning for her husband: ‘A woman is surely a poor creature if with a large happy affectionate family of children around her, she can’t take heart to do her duty whether she likes it or not’. She herself, it has to be said, had recovered rather quickly from Frank Oliphant’s death.
This is the background to the story of Mrs Blencarrow, a dignified woman of forty, with several children, whose life appears to be blameless and sexless. Although she has servants, she is not an idle woman but like Victoria administers a great estate. She is ‘a princess in her way, a queen-mother’, but she is also ‘a woman with a fine constitution and in the prime of life’. Readers today may be perplexed by the shock and horror; why shouldn’t she get married again to whoever she likes? As the clergyman, Mr Germaine, says, she has not actually done anything wrong. But the point is that in Mrs Blencarrow’s world there would be an enormous scandal, and her brothers, who are joint guardians of the children, would take them away rather than let them be brought up by Brown.
That is the heart of the problem, because Mrs Blencarrow, like her creator, cares far more deeply for her children than for any man. She had once been in a similar position. There was never any scandal, but after her husband’s death she made friends with Robert Story, an attractive man seven years younger than herself, who may have wanted to marry her. It seems that she decided against it, but was briefly tempted, and there are several hints in her fiction that she understood the feelings of a young widow who had not lost all interest in men.
So much has dated, yet the basic human problem remains the same. If a woman has children but no husband, does she put her own needs or her children’s needs first? The Victorians tended to believe that if a widow remarried her children would suffer. Dickens had studied this problem in 'David Copperfield'; Margaret Oliphant had studied it in 'A Country Gentleman and his Family' (1886). In this novel, one of her finest, a woman who is devoted to her small son marries a younger man, and it turns out badly. Although there is no class difference, her new husband resents her child and the marriage breaks up.
She was not very good at constructing plots. It is barely credible that the silly young runaway bride, Kitty, just happens to find the name Blencarrow on the Gretna Green register - but does not notice Brown’s name - and that the two brothers should look at the same record but fail to find it, ‘by some chance, by some miracle - how could she tell what?’ The mechanics did not interest her. The vital point is that Mrs Blencarrow, who is really Mrs Brown, saves her reputation but loses her husband - and both of them are intensely relieved when he clears off.
We understand why she found him attractive. He is handsome and vigorous, a brilliant skater, a useful ‘half-steward, half-agent’ who has been a great help to her. But the marriage has quite quickly gone bad, not only because she is older, in years and life-experience, but also because of the vast difference in status. It cannot be openly acknowledged and, of course, the man resents his position:
‘I am not a gentleman’, he said, ‘but I’ve married a lady. What have I made by it? At first I was a fool. I was pleased whatever she did. But that sort of thing don’t last. I’ve never been anything but Brown the steward, while she was the lady and mistress. How is a man to stand that? I’ve been hidden out of sight. She’s never acknowledged me, never given me my proper place. Brought up to supper at the ball by those two brats of boys, spoken to in a gracious sort of way, “My good Brown”. And I her husband - her husband, whom it was her business to obey!’
Brown - who does not speak for himself until the penultimate chapter - is, as he says, no gentleman, but he has his standards. Legally he is entitled to everything she owns and everyone takes it for granted that her duty to her husband ‘must come first’. He is sick of her and wants a wife of his own age and class, but does not expose her to her spiteful neighbours. Instead he goes away quietly and only one other person will ever know the secret of Mrs Blencarrow.
It will be seen (it is obvious in many other novels) that Margaret Oliphant did not have a romantic view of marriage. This novel ends with the young lovers, Kitty and Walter, settling into a relationship which, ‘like most others’, is not exactly happy or unhappy, while Mrs Blencarrow remains alone. The author has great sympathy with her, but her behaviour has been inappropriate and undignified. Her role is to be ‘my children’s guardian, their steward, their caretaker’, and there will be no other man in her life. Having had her adventure she wants nothing but ‘her children, and her home, and this perfect peace’.
The title of 'Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond' comes from a famous legend of the twelfth century. Henry II certainly had a mistress called Rosamund Clifford, who perhaps had a love-nest at Woodstock, and it was said that Eleanor, his queen, tracked her down there and forced her to drink poison. This story is not true, but it does show how people expected a middle-aged wife to react to a younger, lovelier woman who had trespassed on her rights.
When she wrote it Margaret was almost certainly thinking of her youth in Birkenhead and the extraordinary behaviour of her brother Frank in 1868. Eleanor, the central figure, can hardly believe that a man of that age can simply walk out on his responsibilities. We are invited to wonder at ‘the strange passion which made him, at fifty, depart from all the traditions of his virtuous life’.
Mr and Mrs Lycett-Landon have been married for a quarter of a century and have a family of six. (Some of their other children have died, and she feels it more deeply than he does). But the passion has gone out of their marriage, and the children have no real need of him:
It was rather a relief to them all when the father went away again. They did not say so indeed in so many words, still keeping up the amiable domestic fiction that the house was not at all like itself when papa was away. But as a matter of fact there could be little doubt that the atmosphere was clear after he was gone .... There was nothing impassioned in their affection for their father, and Mrs Lycett-Landon was happy with her children, and quite satisfied that her husband should do what he thought best.
She is so content without him, in fact, that it takes her some time to realise that he is suffering from some sort of monomania. His strange behaviour can mean nothing, surely, ‘except business, or the good of the children, or some other perfectly legitimate desire?’ But it turns out that he has illegitimate desires, and this eventually brings her to the London suburbs, through the flowery streets, into the heart of Rosamond’s bower. Her husband has committed bigamy.
This may sound far-fetched. But some men did commit bigamy, into the next century and beyond, and Margaret stresses that the new young ‘wife’ is an innocent victim. She would not have sympathised with a woman who had knowingly set up home with a married man. Rose has fallen in love, as young people do, with the selfish and querulous Mr Lycett-Landon, and after the first dreadful shock his wife is prepared to let the situation go on:
This modern Eleanor, who had fallen so innocently into Rosamond’s bower, had no thought of vengeance in her heart. She had no wish to kill or injure the unhappy girl who had come between her and her husband. What good would that do? Were Rosamond made an end of in a moment, how would it change the fact?
The young woman will be heartbroken if she ever finds out; her reputation will be destroyed. For herself, Eleanor realises that her marriage is an empty shell and that she does not want the man back. As other women have done, she blames herself - ‘No doubt I have been wrong’ - and worries about protecting his reputation. But eventually she settles back into a quiet life with her children and, when she meets her husband again, has no feeling for him. He has messed up the lives of three women (for we must not forget Rose’s mother), but he is no romantic hero, just an ‘elderly, stout .... oh so commonplace’ man.
It is high time for this story, ‘as terrible and grim a picture of a man tired of fifty years of respectability as was ever written’, to come back into print. The words are those of J.M. Barrie, who went on, ‘Mrs Oliphant wrote so many short stories that she forgot their names and what they were about, but readers, I think, will not soon forget this one; and if not this, when shall their hearts grow cold and their admiration wane for the wonderful woman of whom it is but the thousandth part?’
These two novellas were written within three or four years of each other and belong naturally together, because each is about a middle-aged woman who takes sole responsibility for her children. The children are absorbed in their own young lives and have to be shielded from a parent’s behaviour. Another thing we notice in each of them is the absence of direct confrontation. Mrs Blencarrow’s story is dominated by voices speaking through the darkness, figures glimpsed in half-light. She and Brown, her husband, are never seen having a private conversation. We are never told how they fell in love or what went wrong. In the same way, we never get inside Mr Lycett-Landon’s obsession with the young woman he cannot legally marry. Eleanor and the reader never know ‘how the other story ended: if the poor Rose, her husband’s unfortunate young wife, died of it, or if she abandoned him; or if the poor mother lacked the courage to tell her; or if between them the young woman was kept in her poor little suburban paradise deceived’. When her mother finds out the truth and faints, at the end of Chapter 9, ‘The Revelation’, we are all set for a great scene in the next chapter. But it does not come.
Probably Margaret Oliphant felt that she had already told us as much as we needed to know. She had grown up believing strongly that there were certain things which respectable families did not discuss. She had had a brother (not Frank) who was an alcoholic and made her early life miserable; she grew used to covering up for him. She never discussed her marriage, or her chronic money problems, or her disappointments with her sons. All these things got into her fiction, but she refused to acknowledge them. ‘Nothing before the children!’ says Mrs Blencarrow, and Mrs Lycett-Landon’s chief worry, when she discovers her husband’s other life, is how to keep her children from knowing. ‘Milly never heard till after her marriage what it was that had happened, and at no time did Horace ask any questions’. A suitable alternative name for this volume might be Secrets and Lies.
Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) was a once famous Victorian novelist and critic, almost forgotten for ninety years after her death. I became fascinated by her work and her life story and published Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography (Macmillan) in 1986. Since that time she has had a modest revival; several of her best novels and stories - including some superb ghost stories - have been reprinted, and Pickering and Chatto are now publishing a scholarly twenty-four volume edition of her Selected Works. The essay below is my Afterword to the 2010 Persephone edition of her short novel The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, which is now a free e-book! The poem 'Biographer' was inspired by a visit to her old home in Clarence Crescent, Windsor and considers the problem of summing up another person's life.
I sense her. She stands behind me but doesn't know
how the book ends. Look round and she'll disappear.
Reading over my shoulder, she seems puzzled;
1998? - that's the wrong year.
Dead of night, and I'm in a room of the town house
she worked in. Her pens are dry, fireplace swept out.
A daddy-long-legs flops on the desk, attracted
by the steady glare of my anglepoise lamp.
And we've arrived at a hot Victorian summer,
1883 I think; magnolia shade
in the garden, hansom cabs, evil news from India,
and black-clothed strangers stopping at her gate.
I see you are reading my diaries, and letters
not addressed to you. The house-dog growled
faintly as I came upstairs, but it makes no difference,
locked doors and window-chains will not keep me out.
'I too was a writer, and know the subject
is passive, unvarying and can't answer.
Whatever insult you throw, I can but take it;
all power is given to the biographer.
'But why do you quote dates from the distant future?
And why may I not see the last chapter?