Margaret Oliphant

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Margaret Oliphant
Margaret Oliphant Oliphant.jpg
Margaret Oliphant, from the frontispiece of A Literary History of England from 1760 to 1825
Born Margaret Oliphant Wilson
(1828-04-04)4 April 1828
Wallyford, Scotland
Died 25 June 1897(1897-06-25) (aged 69)
Wimbledon, London
Genre Romance


Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Oliphant Wilson) (4 April 1828 – 25 June 1897), was a Scottish novelist and historical writer, who usually wrote as Mrs. Oliphant. Her fictional works encompass "domestic realism, the historical novel and tales of the supernatural".[1]


The daughter of Francis W. Wilson (c.1788–1858), a clerk, and his wife, Margaret Oliphant (c.1789–1854), she was born at Wallyford, near Musselburgh, East Lothian, and spent her childhood at Lasswade (near Dalkeith), Glasgow and Liverpool. As a girl, she constantly experimented with writing. In 1849 she had her first novel published: Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland. This dealt with the Scottish Free Church movement, with which Mr. and Mrs. Wilson both sympathised, and met with some success. It was followed by Caleb Field in 1851, the year in which she met the publisher William Blackwood in Edinburgh and was invited to contribute to the famous Blackwood's Magazine. The connection was to last for her whole lifetime, during which she contributed well over 100 articles, including, a critique of the character of Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

In May 1852, she married her cousin, Frank Wilson Oliphant, at Birkenhead, and settled at Harrington Square in London. An artist working mainly in stained glass, her husband had delicate health, and three of their six children died in infancy,[2] while the father himself developed alarming symptoms of consumption. For the sake of his health they moved in January 1859 to Florence, and then to Rome, where Frank Oliphant died. His wife, left almost entirely without resources, returned to England and took up the burden of supporting her three remaining children by her own literary activity.

Memorial to Mrs Oliphant in St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh.

She had now become a popular writer, and worked with amazing industry to sustain her position. Unfortunately, her home life was full of sorrow and disappointment. In January 1864 her only remaining daughter Maggie died in Rome, and was buried in her father's grave. Her brother, who had emigrated to Canada, was shortly afterwards involved in financial ruin, and Mrs. Oliphant offered a home to him and his children, and added their support to her already heavy responsibilities.

In 1866 she settled at Windsor to be near her sons who were being educated at Eton. That year, her second cousin, Annie Louisa Walker, came to live with her as a companion-housekeeper.[3] This was her home for the rest of her life, and for more than thirty years she pursued a varied literary career with courage scarcely broken by a series of the gravest troubles. The ambitions she cherished for her sons were unfulfilled. Cyril Francis, the elder, died in 1890, leaving a Life of Alfred de Musset, incorporated in his mother's Foreign Classics for English Readers, The younger, Francis (whom she called "Cecco"), collaborated with her in the Victorian Age of English Literature and won a position at the British Museum, but was rejected by Sir Andrew Clark, a famous physician. Cecco died in 1894. With the last of her children lost to her, she had but little further interest in life. Her health steadily declined, and she died at Wimbledon, London, on 25 June 1897.[4]

In the 1880s she was the literary mentor of the Irish novelist Emily Lawless. During this time Oliphant wrote several works of supernatural fiction, including the long ghost story A Beleaguered City (1880) and several short tales, including "The Open Door" and "Old Lady Mary".[5]



Oliphant, during an often difficult life, wrote more than 120 works, including novels, books of travel and description, histories, and volumes of literary criticism.


  • Margaret Maitland (1849).
  • Merkland (1850).
  • Caleb Field (1851).
  • John Drayton (1851).
  • Adam Graeme (1852).
  • The Melvilles (1852).
  • Katie Stewart (1852).
  • Harry Muir (1853).
  • Ailieford (1853).
  • The Quiet Heart (1854).
  • Magdalen Hepburn (1854).
  • Zaidee (1855).
  • Lilliesleaf (1855).
  • Christian Melville (1855).
  • The Athelings (1857).
  • The Days of My Life (1857).
  • Orphans (1858).
  • The Laird of Norlaw (1858).
  • Agnes Hopetoun's Schools and Holidays (1859).
  • Lucy Crofton (1860).
  • The House on the Moor (1861).
  • The Last of the Mortimers (1862).
  • Heart and Cross (1863).
  • The Chronicles of Carlingford in Blackwood's Magazine (1862–1865), republished as:
  • A Son of the Soil (1865).
  • Agnes (1866).
  • Madonna Mary (1867).
  • Brownlows (1868).
  • The Minister's Wife (1869).
  • The Three Brothers (1870).
  • John: A Love Story (1870).
  • Squire Arden (1871).
  • At his Gates (1872).
  • Ombra (1872).
  • May (1873).
  • Innocent (1873).
  • The Story of Valentine and his Brother (1875).
  • A Rose in June (1874).
  • For Love and Life (1874).
  • Whiteladies (1875).
  • An Odd Couple (1875).
  • The Curate in Charge (1876).
  • Carità (1877).
  • Young Musgrave (1877).
  • Mrs. Arthur (1877).
  • The Primrose Path (1878).
  • Within the Precincts (1879).
  • The Fugitives (1879).
  • A Beleaguered City (1879).
  • The Greatest Heiress in England (1880).
  • He That Will Not When He May (1880).
  • In Trust (1881).
  • Harry Joscelyn (1881).
  • Lady Jane (1882).
  • A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (1882).
  • The Lady Lindores (1883).
  • Sir Tom (1883).
  • Hester (1883).
  • It Was a Lover and his Lass (1883).
  • The Lady's Walk (1883).
  • The Wizard's Son (1884).
  • Madam (1884).
  • The Prodigals and their Inheritance (1885).
  • Oliver's Bride (1885).
  • A Country Gentleman and his Family (1886).
  • A House Divided Against Itself (1886).
  • Effie Ogilvie (1886).
  • A Poor Gentleman (1886).
  • The Son of his Father (1886).
  • Joyce (1888).
  • Cousin Mary (1888).
  • The Land of Darkness (1888).
  • Lady Car (1889).
  • Kirsteen (1890).
  • The Mistery of Mrs. Biencarrow (1890).
  • Sons and Daughters (1890).
  • The Railway Man and his Children (1891).
  • The Heir Presumptive and the Heir Apparent (1891).
  • The Marriage of Elinor (1891).
  • Janet (1891).
  • The Cuckoo in the Nest (1892).
  • Diana Trelawny (1892).
  • The Sorcerers (1893).
  • A House in Bloomsbury (1894).
  • Sir Robert's Fortune (1894).
  • Who Was Lost and is Found (1894).
  • Lady William (1894).
  • Two Strangers (1895).
  • Old Mr. Tredgold (1895).
  • The Unjust Steward (1896).
  • The Ways of Life (1897).

Short stories

  • Neighbours on the Green (1889).
  • A Widow's Tale and Other Stories (1898).
  • That Little Cutty (1898).
  • "The Open Door." In: Great Ghost Stories (1918).

Selected articles


Her biographies of Edward Irving (1862) and her cousin Laurence Oliphant (1892), together with her life of Sheridan in the English Men of Letters series (1883), show vivacity and a sympathetic touch. She also wrote biographies of Francis of Assisi (1871) and Scottish theologian John Tulloch.

Historical and critical works

  • Historical Sketches of the Reign of George II (1869)
  • The Makers of Florence (1876)
  • A Literary History of England from 1760 to 1825 (1882)
  • The Makers of Venice (1887)
  • Royal Edinburgh (1890)
  • Jerusalem (1891)
  • The Makers of Modern Rome (1895)
  • William Blackwood and his Sons (1897)
  • "The Sisters Brontë." In: Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign (1897)

At the time of her death, Oliphant was still working on Annals of a Publishing House, a record of the progress and achievement of the firm of Blackwood, with which she had been so long connected. Her Autobiography and Letters, which present a touching picture of her domestic anxieties, appeared in 1899. Only parts were written with a wider audience in mind: she had originally intended the Autobiography for her son, but he died before she had finished it.[6]

Critical reception

M. R. James admired Oliphant's supernatural fiction, and stated that "the religious ghost story, as it may be called, was never done better than by Mrs. Oliphant in "The Open Door" and A Beleaguered City".[7] Mary Butts lauded Oliphant's ghost story "The Library Window", describing it as "one masterpiece of sober loveliness".[8]

Revival of interest

Interest in Mrs. Oliphant's work declined in the 20th century. In the mid-1980s, a small-scale revival was led by the publishers Alan Sutton[9] and Virago Press, centred on the Carlingford series and some similarities of subject-matter with the work of Anthony Trollope.[10]

Penguin Books in 1999 published an edition of Miss Marjoribanks (1866).[11] Hester (1873) was reissued in 2003 by Oxford World's Classics.[12] In 2007–2009, the Gloucester publisher Dodo Press reprinted half a dozen of Oliphant's works. In 2010, both the British Library and Persephone Books reissued The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow (1890), in the latter case with the novella Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund (1886),[13] and the Association for Scottish Literary Studies produced a new edition of the novel Kirsteen (1890).[14]

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a four-hour dramatisation of Miss Marjoribanks in August/September 1992 and a four-hour dramatisation of Phoebe Junior in May 1995. A 70-minute adaptation of Hester was broadcast on Radio 4 in January 2014.[15]

Russell Hoban also alludes to Oliphant's fiction in his 2003 novel Her Name Was Lola.[16]


  1. Oliphant, Margaret. Miss Majoribanks. Ed. Elisabeth Jay. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999, p. vii.
  2. According to Elizabeth Jay, in the introduction of Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography (published in 2002), p. 9, one of these children died aged one day, another one, Stephen Thomas, died at nine weeks, Marjorie, the other daughter, died aged about eight months. The surviving children were Maggie (died in 1864), Cyril Francis, "Tiddy" (died in 1890) and Francis Romano, "Cecco" (died in 1894). However, The Victorian Web mentions seven children.See also Elisabeth Jay: Oliphant, Margaret Oliphant... In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: OUP, 2004). Retrieved 14 November 2010. Subscription required. for the countless dependents she supported through much of her life.
  3. Elizabeth Jay, ed. (2002). The autobiography of Margaret Oliphant. Mississauga, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd. ISBN 1-55111-276-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Death of Mrs. Oliphant: Cancer Ends the Career of the Famous English Novelist and Historian," The New York Times, 27 June 1897.
  5. Mike Ashley , Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction. Elm Tree Books, 1977. ISBN 0-241-89528-6. (p.142)
  6. George P. Landow (1988). "The Problematic Relationship of Autobiographer to Audience". Retrieved 24 October 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. M. R. James,"Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", in The Bookman, December 1929.Reprinted in James, Collected Ghost Stories, edited by Darryl Jones. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 9780199568840 (p. 414)
  8. Mary Butts, "Ghosties and Ghoulies: The Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction" (1933). In Ashe of Rings and Other Writings. Kingston, NY: McPherson & Co., ISBN 0929701534 (p.358)
  9. The Curate in Charge (1875), reissued in 1985. ISBN 0-86299-327-X.
  10. See, for example, the blurb and introduction (p. xiv) to the 1987 Virago paperback edition of The Perpetual Curate. ISBN 0-86068-786-4.
  11. ISBN 0-14-043630-8.
  12. ISBN 0-19-280411-1.
  13. Persephone site: Retrieved 30 October 2010.
  14. ASLS site: Retrieved 21 June 2012.
  16. "He [Hoban] also references Gothic writers who have influenced him, such as Margaret Oliphant and Oliver Onions". Review of Her Name Was Lola by Russell Hoban. The Times, 8 November 2003, (p.14).
  • Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. Missing or empty |title= (help)CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

External links