Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow - Margaret Oliphant

The two novellas in this volume are about marriage & more specifically, the perils for women of making unsuitable marriages. In the title story, Mrs Blencarrow is a respected widow, still young, managing the estate for her son. Her position in local society is unassailable although some of her neighbours jealously feel that she is maybe too reserved. When a flirty young woman elopes with her lover to Gretna Green, she sees Mrs Blencarrow’s name in the register. Could respectable Mrs Blencarrow be secretly married? Young Kitty Bircham doesn’t notice the man’s name (I thought this was pretty unbelievable) but it’s not hard to work out who the mysterious secret husband is. Kitty tells her mother to take her mind off the elopement & rumours spread. Mrs Blencarrow’s brothers arrive to find out the truth but her haughty refusal to discuss the matter leaves them nonplussed.

Mrs Blencarrow finally confesses her story to the Vicar. The secret marriage to a younger man, inferior in station; the almost immediate regrets; the shame she feels & her fear that if the story gets out, her brothers would remove her children from her care & she would be disgraced. A solution is found, the threat of discovery is gone. Modern readers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Surely an independent woman can marry who she pleases? Not in 19th century England she couldn’t. Society’s rules on propriety were strict & unbendable. Mrs Blencarrow is not only a widow, she is the guardian of her son’s inheritance. Any hint that her morals are not beyond reproach would be fatal to her reputation. She would have been cast out of society & probably lost custody of her children.

I was surprised to see the parallels to a real-life situation that kept the rumour mills turning at the time. Queen Victoria was suspected of marrying her Highland servant, John Brown, during her long widowhood. Any reader of the time would have seen the resemblances in the story of Mrs Blencarrow although there’s no evidence that Queen Victoria ever did become Mrs Brown. I wonder if the story was read at Court? The tone of the story is high melodrama. The Vicar’s response to Mrs Blencarrow’s story is typically overblown,

The fact was enough; his mind refused to receive it, yet grasped it with the force of a catastrophe. He sat down helpless, without a word to say, with a wave of his hands to express his impotence, his incapacity even to think in face of a revelation so astounding and terrible; and for a full minute there was complete silence; neither of the three moved or spoke. The calm ticking of the clock took up the tale, as if the room had been vacant – time going on indifferent to all the downfalls and shame of humanity – with now and then a crackle from the glowing fire. 
She said at last, being the first, as a woman usually is, to be moved with impatience by the deadly silence, ‘It was not only to tell you – but to ask, what am I to do?’

However, there’s also some humour in the telling, especially in the story of Kitty & her lover, Walter. The final words of the story are about Kitty’s marriage,

That match turned out, like most others, neither perfect happiness nor misery. Perhaps neither husband nor wife could have explained ten years after how it was that they were so idiotic as to think that they could not live without each other; but they get on together very comfortably, all the same.

The second story, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond, is the story of two deceived women. Much less melodramatic in tone than The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, this story has just as much emotion & I found it very moving. If you know the story referred to in the title, of Eleanor of Acquitaine & her discovery of her husband, Henry II’s, mistress Rosamond Clifford, hidden away at Woodstock, then the story’s plot has no surprises, although the endings are quite different.

Robert Lycett-Landon is a businessman with offices in Liverpool & London. His family live in Liverpool but he spends increasing amounts of time in London on the pretext that he’s unhappy with the way the office is being run & wants to be there to personally supervise. His wife, Eleanor, & eldest son, Horace, go to London when they don’t hear from Robert & fear that he’s ill. They discover that, far from closely supervising the business, he has hardly been seen there for months. Eventually, Eleanor tracks him down to a pretty house in a London suburb. She is shocked to discover that there is a young woman there calling herself Mrs Lycett-Landon. Robert’s secret other life has been exposed. He has bigamously married another woman who has no idea that she is living a lie.

This is the point where the story could have become as melodramatic & overwrought as The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow, but Margaret Oliphant is much more subtle. Robert arrives & is horrified to see Eleanor but there’s no scene. Eleanor goes back to the hotel & takes Horace back home. She tells Robert’s business partner & her older children but no one else & the nine days wonder of Robert’s disappearance soon fades when there is no fresh news to feed it. Eleanor realises that her marriage is over & isn’t a revengeful woman.

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 ancients did not take this view of the subject. They took it for granted that when the intruder was removed life went on again in the same lines, and that nothing was irremediable. But to Mrs Lycett-Landon life could never go on again. It had all come to a humiliating close; confusion had taken the place of order, and all that had been, as well as all that was to be, had grown suddenly impossible.

Eleanor’s dignity in the face of such grief & humiliation is very moving. She even acknowledges that she must also have been at fault if Robert was not happy in their marriage & she was too preoccupied to notice it. Young Rose’s mother also discovers the trap into which her daughter has fallen. But we never discover what happens to Rose. Her mother seems set on keeping the secret because the scandal would be too great. Robert even visits her in later years, a broken man, but without telling her anything of his new life.  Oliphant subverts all our expectations of either a great reconciliation scene or a tearful deathbed where Eleanor’s restraint is rewarded with Robert’s repentance. Instead we have a picture of a woman going on with her life with dignity.

I enjoyed both these novellas very much. I have several more Oliphants on the tbr shelves, some of the Carlingford Chronicles that Desperate Reader has been so enthusiastically recommending & A Beleaguered City, a volume of stories of “the seen & the unseen” which look intriguing. I’ll definitely be reading more of Margaret Oliphant in the future.


  1. I have a copy of Miss Marjoribanks I still haven't started. . . and I think I want this book because of the endpapers, if nothing else!

  2. Karen, Miss M is wonderful. She's very like Emma Woodhouse, bossy & a matchmaker, it's a really good read.

  3. Miss M is wonderful, and I to think she's another Emma, I'm surprised that she isn't more popular!