Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Praise of Mrs. Oliphant

Imagine if there was a Victorian novelist as skilled as Dickens whose works were completely unknown. Guess what, there is!

Her names is Mrs. Oliphant. She lived a life of unparalleled frustration and tragedy and throughout it supported herself, her son, and a gaggle of parasitic relatives with her pen. You can read a brief biography of her HERE. Unfortunately, her only biographers are scholars and their books are not easy to find.

Literary scholars decided long ago that Oliphant's works were too "popular" and sloppily written. I find it hard to understand why, because I found her novel, Kirsteen, a sheer delight. In fact, it kept me up turning pages way past my bedtime. Dickens and Thackaray never did that for me.

Kirsteen was published in 1888 but caught my interest because it is, in fact, a Regency novel set in Scotland and London in a period that starts in 1814 and ends in the early 1820s.

I picked it up because figured someone who was born in 1828 as Oliphant had been would have had enough contact, growing up, with people who had lived through the Regency period to be able to give us the telling details missing in works that depend on dry scholarship or male written texts. I hoped too that she'd provide new insight into the emotional climate of the period.

And does she!

Just as we write Regencies filtered through our 21st century values, Oliphant writes her Regency-set historical novel with the outlook of a Victorian. But she is not a male Victorian. She's a woman, and most importantly a single woman who was a breadwinner, whose marriage stunk, whose family disregarded her Victorian-approved sacrifices, and whose life span encompassed the shift from Regency values to those we now call "modern."

Kirsteen, then, is a novel that explores the psychology of women raised with traditional, Regency values from the perspective of a woman who lived by those values, suffered from them, and presents us with a book that teaches us what it took for a woman raised that way to survive.

Unlike the novels that have become required reading in Feminist Studies courses, Kirsteen makes its points subtly, in a way that a speed reader reading for plot might not even notice, but which leaps out at you once you start paying attention.

The story describes the family life of a beautiful Scottish redhead whose family is obsessed with the fact that its head is the traditional head of their clan, though their family lost their land and wealth in the Jacobite rebellion. The father has managed to buy back a small holding with his earnings as a West Indies slave driver. That gives you some hint as to the kind of family life you are about to explore, though since these are Scots everything is happening behind passive exteriors and nobody ever says a word about what they are feeling.

We have some real Scots in our extended family, and I have to say, the portrait of the emotional style seems pretty true to life.

Kirsteen, the heroine, gets into a situation where she is pressured to marry a pleasant older man. The marriage will provide benefits for everyone in the family, including herself. But she has secretly troth plighted herself to a soldier and cannot accept.

This forces her into an independent life in London. I won't give away the rest of the plot, because the way the plot develops is a large part of the pleasure of reading this book. All I can say is that you will not get a HEA. Instead you get something equally fine: a lesson in why HEA is only one of many satisfying possibilities for a woman's life.

For those of us who collect small details of daily life in our period, Kirsteen is a treasure trove of information about early 19th century life in Scotland, though one that confirms my sense that the passionate emotionally expressive Scottish hero is very much a fantasy that could only flourish somewhere devoid of real, culturally intact Scots.

As to why Mrs. Oliphant is so unknown, my guess is that she dropped out of the canon because she is so very much a woman writing for women. Her sensitive nuanced descriptions of women's inner life were dismissed as "sentimental" while Dickens and Thackaray's unrealistic female puppets still make the cut.

I found Kirsteen far more readable than Dickens and I must admit Oliphant managed to bring a tear to my eye. If that means she is a "sentimental" author then so be it. Since I read fiction to explore emotional states, it worked for me.