Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Women Novelists of Queen Victoria's Reign - Margaret Oliphant et al

One of the members of my 19th century book group posted a link to this book, recently made available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg. It consists of a series of essays by 19th century women novelists in appreciation of their famous predecessors. Published to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the contributors set out their criteria in the Publishers’ Note,

Having been concerned for many years in the publication of works of fiction by feminine writers, it has occurred to us to offer, as our contribution to the celebration of ‘the longest Reign’, a volume having as its subject leading Women Novelists of the Victorian Era.

They only include dead authors & only those whose whole career was encompassed by the years 1837-1897. I was interested initially because the first chapter was Margaret Oliphant on the Brontёs. I’ve read quotes from this essay in many books about the Brontёs so I was interested to read the whole piece. Then, I skipped the chapter about George Eliot written by Eliza Lynn Linton, although I was intrigued by the beginning, which shows how sensitive the subject of her long, unmarried relationship with George Lewes still was, almost 20 years after her death,

In this essay it is not intended to go into the vexed question of George Eliot’s private life and character. Death has resolved her individuality into nothingness, and the discrepancy between her lofty thoughts and doubtful action no longer troubles us.

 I read about Elizabeth Gaskell, then Mrs Henry Wood was mentioned, &, as I’ve recently read her Anne Hereford, I wanted to read that & then there was Dinah Mulock Craik (I've read her John Halifax, Gentlemen) & before I knew it I only had a couple of chapters to go so I went back & read about George Eliot (where, despite her intentions, Linton does discuss Eliot's private life quite extensively!) & finished the book. Interestingly, several of the women in the book Notable Women Authors of the Day that I reviewed recently, turn up here writing about their predecessors. Edna Lyall writes about Elizabeth Gaskell,  Adeline Sergeant about Mrs Crowe (she wrote a well-regarded book of ghost stories, The Night Side of Nature, which I would love to get my hands on), Mrs Archer Clive & Mrs Henry Wood & also Charlotte M Yonge about three novelists I’ve never heard of (Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Mrs Stretton & Anne Manning).

However, my main interest was in Margaret Oliphant’s views of the Brontё sisters. I find it so interesting to see what the reputations of authors like the Brontёs were at the end of the 19th century & compare it to today.  The beginning of the essay is blunt, to say the least,

The effect produced upon the general mind by the appearance of Charlotte Brontё in literature, and afterwards by the record of her life when that was over, is one which it is nowadays somewhat difficult to understand. Had the age been deficient in the art of fiction, or had it followed any long level of mediocrity in that art, we could have comprehended this more easily. But Charlotte Brontё appeared in the full flush of a period more richly endowed that any other we know of in that special branch of literature...

Oliphant admits the genius of a woman with little experience of the world & no social advantages but she dislikes the level of satire & spite in the novels. I wondered several times if Oliphant was worried about hurting the feelings of some of the originals of Brontё’s fictional characters. She goes to great lengths to restore the reputation of the Clergy Daughters School, portrayed so scathingly as Lowood in Jane Eyre. She obviously remembered the furore over this when Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte was published in the 1850s. She even refers to it as,

The great school, which it was Charlotte Brontё’s first act when she began her literary career to invest with an almost tragic character of misery, privation, and wrong, was her first step from home.

Oliphant is also very disapproving of Charlotte's use of the Hegers in Villette. M Heger may still have been alive when the essay was written (he died in 1896) although he had died by the time it was published, but his children were still living in Brussels & of course Charlotte's passionate letters to him hadn't been revealed. Elizabeth Gaskell famously suppressed them when she was writing her biography. Charlotte's widower, Arthur Nicholls was also still alive in Ireland (he didn't die until 1906).

It startles the reader to find – a fact which we had forgotten – that M Paul Emanuel was M Heger, the husband of Madame Heger and legitimate head of the house: and that this daring and extraordinary girl did not hesitate to encounter gossip or slander by making him so completely the hero of her romance. Slander in its commonplace form had nothing to do with such a fiery spirit as that of Charlotte Brontё: but it shows her perfect independence of mind and scorn of comment that she should have done this.

She also discusses Shirley, feeling that the book is a failure compared with Jane Eyre or Villette & disapproving of the satirical scenes with the curates & the outspoken desires of Shirley & Caroline for love. Oliphant disapproves of the way love is portrayed in the novel, the way the women demand love as their right,

It is dominated throughout with this complaint. Curates? Yes, there they are, a group of them. Is that the thing you expect us women to marry? Yet it is our right to bear children, to guide the house. And we are half the world, and where is the provision for us?

Oliphant still sees this as a radical view, even 50 years after Shirley was published. She gives a sympathetic outline of Charlotte’s personal life, following Gaskell’s biography & has some very perceptive criticism of the characters in the novels, although she often dislikes the way the books have been written, both the style & the narrative tone. Oliphant has no time for Emily or Anne Brontё,

... Emily, whose genius has been taken for granted, carrying the wilder elements of the common inspiration to extremity in the strange, chaotic and weird romance of Wuthering Heights, while Anne diluted such powers of social observation as were in the family into two mildly disagreeable novels of a much commoner order...

& dismisses Branwell as a typical good-for-nothing wastrel son, whose life should have been discreetly veiled rather than exhibited so fully in the Gaskell biography. She discounts any influence that Branwell could have had on his sisters’ work. The other essays are just as interesting, even the ones about authors I haven’t read or heard of. This is an interesting book, especially if you have an interest in just what the critics thought about writers like the Brontёs who are now so indisputably part of the canon. After reading this & having just read the January edition of Brontё Studies which was a special issue with the recent papers from the conference on the influences of the men in the Brontёs' lives, I've started rereading Villette!

The picture is from here.


  1. I hadn't realised that Charlotte Bronte's widower had actually lived into the 20th century - for some reason I thought of him as very firmly in the Victorian era!
    Despite Jane Eyre being one of my very favourite books and living not that far from Haworth, I was woefully ignorant about her life until I read Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow which is a sort of fictionalised life of the Brontes from Charlotte's perspective and very atmospheric but so sad.
    Your book sounds fascinating - I am really just re-discovering the Victorian novel so you have given me a lot of names to look for.
    Thank you!

  2. Liz, it was a very interesting book because the writers were so much closer to the authors they write about than we are today. How lucky you are to live close to Haworth! Arthur Nicholls went back to Ireland after patrick Bronte died. He managed the family farm, married his cousin, Mary Ann, about 9 years after Charlotte died & lived a long life. Apparently he never forgot Charlotte & his last words were about her. I find the Victorians endlessly fascinating, there's always more to discover.

  3. I think Oliphant was a touch jealous of the Brontes...and was she wrong? Who is bettered remembered today?

    Indeed in the later part of his life, Arthur Bell Nicholls use to read in the newspaper quite a bit, "the astonishing fact that Jane Eyre's husband ( as he was called ) still lived! " until 1906 to be exact. 51 years after Charlotte's death

    1. Yes, I think she admired them but may have felt that they dominated 19th century criticism when it came to female authors. I find it quite touching that Nicholls maintained his dignity & refused to trade on his status as Charlotte's widower. He must have been appalled by Mrs Gaskell's biography & some of the things Ellen Nussey said about him.