The novels of Margaret Oliphant
Part One, after a consideration of Mrs Oliphant's failure to achieve a reputation commensurate with her talents, is devoted to an examination of her special qualities as a novelist. First, it is necessary to demonstrate, through examination of magazine articles and novels, that she developed strongly feminist views during the second half of her career. After this three major characteristics of an Oliphant novel are examined in detail: her treatment of the major Victorian themes of parenthood, death and love is markedly anti-romantic, supported by a rich play of irony; her very individual approach to character takes a special interest in complex states of mind and in the processes of thinking; she achieves thematic unity by structuring her mature novels upon parallels of plot and subplot and the patterning of characters. Part Two, first chronologically and then thematically, examines Mrs Oliphant's career, which started with a decade of experiment, exploring her own potentialities with novels of little merit, but serving as a journey towards the remarkable self-discovery of The Chronicles of Carlingford. Two chapters are devoted to the Chronicles, concentrating respectively on the role of the clergy in Carlingford (and in England) and on the examination of a small town community, especially as the setting for Mrs Oliphant's most brilliant heroine, Lucilla Marjoribanks. Three groups of novels deal with three themes; the English class structure, seen in relation to an inheritance theme, frequently combined with a study of the nature of identity; the obsessive power of money, studied above all in Hester; Scotland, viewed more lyrically and nostalgically than England. A chapter is devoted to Mrs Oliphant's once much admired ghost stories, the Stories of the Seen and Unseen (largely uncharacteristic of her special gifts); and the thesis ends, echoing Chapter One, with a final assessment of Mrs Oliphant's status.