The Autobiography of Mrs. Oliphant

“ ALL knowledge,” says the old Chinese proverb, “ is by nature implanted in the mind of a woman ; ” and one cannot run through the presumably complete list of works appended to the reminiscences of the late Mrs. Margaret Oliphant,1 born Wilson, without being reminded of the kernel of everlasting, though to some women peculiarly unpalatable truth so smoothly enveloped in this crafty paradox.

From the amazing bibliography in question, it seems that in her half century of unresting literary activity, from 1847 to 1897, Mrs. Oliphant produced some hundred and twenty-five novels and biographies, and nearly twice that number of shorter essays, critical, descriptive, and speculative. Most of the latter appeared first in Blackwood’s Magazine, and that they did so appear is in itself a warrant of their general excellence. The range of subjects treated in these pieces is enormous ; and while some of them are light enough and of merely ephemeral interest, a good many display far more than the average reviewer’s grasp of the kind of theme on which a man trained in modern methods of research, or a woman trying to proceed like a man, would think well bestowed the gründlich investigation and slow constructive labor of a lifetime. Mrs. Oliphant was capable of industrious research, too, and knew when her task required it, as the best of her historical summaries and her half dozen almost unrivaled biographies conclusively show. Her mind was keen, her temper candid and conscientious; and she was gifted by nature with that unerring sense of the relative value of facts which is so mighty a help in the study of original documents. Yet it is by no means to the wealth of her accumulated knowledge, or to any academic equipment whatsoever, that the main charm and value of this woman’s remarkable work are due. That work has been thoroughly discussed and appreciated since her lamented death in 1897, and adjudged by the almost unanimous verdict of the best living critics to have been not only fabulous in quantity, but upon the whole admirable in quality. It was unequal, because human; but it was all good, and some of it very nearly of the very best. The writer managed, however, to keep herself out of her work and her affairs hidden from the world, as very few authors of either sex have ever done ; and her posthumous memoirs claim attention most of all for the light they shed on a life of heroic endeavor, and the picture they artlessly reflect of a highly distinguished yet curiously debonair, detached and retiring personality.

The so-called autobiographical part of the new volume will be found a little disappointing at first, in that it is not a complete and continuous narrative, but consists of several fragments. The earliest of these, which is dated, 1864, is little more than a desperate outpouring of the mother’s grief over the loss of her eldest child and only daughter, Margaret, who died in Rome at the age of eleven, on January 27 of that year. Twenty-one years later, in 1885, Mrs. Oliphant went back to the recollections of her own infancy, and began a systematic narrative of the events of her outwardly commonplace life, for the benefit of her remaining children, the two idolized boys whom she fondly and naturally expected to survive her. But this narrative was again interrupted by the stress of professional work, to be resumed only in 1894, and then abruptly and most tragically concluded after her sons also had been taken from her.

“ Orba resedit Exanimes inter natos, natasque, virumque.”

Mrs. Oliphant was not quite thirty-six years old when her beautiful Maggie died. Already a popular author, she was to achieve, during the desolate years immediately following that sore bereavement, her best creative and dramatic work in the Chronicles of Carlingford, as she had already touched the limit of her analytic power in the Life of Edward Irving. She had been married at twenty-four, and her long connection with the house of Blackwood, so honorable and profitable to both parties, began at exactly the same time ; she having received, as she always loved to remember, the proofs of her pretty Scotch tale of Katie Stewart on the morning of her wedding day. Her husband, a cousin on the mother’s side, and an artist of some promise, died of pulmonary consumption, also at Rome, four years before the visit which proved fatal to little Margaret; and her youngest child, Francis, always mentioned in these naïf pages by his Italian baby name of Cecco, was born there six weeks after his father’s decease.

Left a widow when only a little over thirty, with three babies and debts to the amount of £1000, she provided by the all but unassisted labor 2 of her pen for her own maintenance during almost forty years, and for that of her sons, both of whom she educated at Eton and Oxford; beside giving a happy home, a mother’s care, and an advantageous start in life to three children, — a son and two daughters of her brother, Francis Wilson, who became insolvent and a helpless wreck in 1868. From a purely commercial point of view, this record is sufficiently remarkable; and to censure Mrs. Olipliant, as some of her critics presume to do, for not having also left a fortune behind her seems to me unreasonable. It might, at all events, be worth the while of those would-be reformers — mostly women of too much leisure, who so earnestly advocate the “ economic independence ” of their sex — to consult these pages for information as to what such independence really means, in the case even of a superlatively endowed and exceptionally successful woman.

The editor of Mrs. Oliphant’s Autobiography, her kinswoman Mrs. Harry Coghill, — also, for some years previous to her own marriage, a member of the household at Windsor, —has bridged the gaps in the personal story simply and skillfully; and has added an interesting selection from the great mass of her cousin’s letters, chiefly from those addressed to different members of the Blackwood family, beside a brief but touching and pertinent preface and the bibliography aforesaid. No editor could have done more or better, under the restrictions imposed by the authoress herself ; and these restrictions were so entirely in harmony with her habitual view of life, and of Margaret Oliphant’s very moderate importance in it, that no true lover of hers can wish them absent. She had an indifference to renown, and a constitutional and cultivated antipathy to réclame, which amounted almost to a foible. Pose of any kind was abhorrent to her, the literary pose most of all; and she records with unmistakable glee the fact that people were very apt to relieve their minds, after a short acquaintance, by whispering in her ear their dislike of literary women. She did with her might what her hands found to do at the bidding of her brain, — as unto God always, and not unto man ; and she lay down at night, for threescore and ten brave years, to the laborer’s welcome rest, with no thought, apparently, that her particular daily task was worth more than another’s. It had sufficed to keep intact the home of her womanly affections, the seat of her true life, and even to make fair that beloved interior with a little modest adornment : and this was enough for her.

The mixture in her of whimsical humility and a rare power of humorous observation preserved her from ever taking herself too seriously ; but neither was she always able to take with entire seriousness reputations much more stately than her own ; and her quaint ingenuousness and freedom from conventional bias give much piquancy to the incidental allusions to other writers which occur during the retrospect of her own career.

When the Life of George Eliot came out, in 1885, “ I wonder,” muses Mrs. Oliphant, “ if I am a little envious of her. I always avoid considering formally what my own mind is worth. I have never had any theory on the subject. I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like walking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children. . . . How I have been handicapped in life ! Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of ? This is one of the things it is perfectly impossible to tell. In all likelihood, our minds and our circumstances are so arranged that, after all, the possible way is the way that is best; yet it is hard sometimes not to feel with Browning’s Andrea that the men who have no wives, who have given themselves up to their art, have had almost an unfair advantage over us who have had, perhaps, more than one Lucrezia to take care of.... I used to be much impressed in the Laurence Oliphants with that curious freedom from human ties which I have never known, and that they always felt it possible to make up their minds to do what was best, whether they could or not! . . . I know I am giving myself the air of being au fond a finer character than the others. I may as well take the little satisfaction to myself, for nobody will give it to me. No one even will mention me in the same breath as George Eliot. And that is just. It is a little satisfaction to me to think how much better off she was, — no trouble in all her life, so far as appears, but the natural one of her father’s death, and perhaps coolnesses with her brothers and sisters, though that is not said. And though her marriage (with Mr. Cross) is not one that most of us would have ventured on, still it seems to have secured her a worshiper unrivaled. I think she must have been a dull woman, with a great genius distinct from herself, — something like the gift of the old prophets, which they sometimes exercised with only a dim sort of perception of what it meant. But this is a thing to be said only with bated breath, and perhaps further thought on the subject may change even my mind. She took herself with tremendous seriousness, that is evident, never relaxing ; — her letters ponderous beyond description, and those to the Bray party giving one the idea of a mutual improvement society for the exchange of essays.”

In the same spirit of mild detachment, she contrasts herself with a woman of a yet more vivid and original genius : “ I was reading of Charlotte Brontë the other day, and could not help comparing myself with the picture, more or less, as I read. I don’t suppose my powers are equal to hers, — my work, to myself, looks perfectly pale and colorless beside hers, — but yet I have had far more experience, and, I think, a fuller conception of life. I have learned to take, perhaps, more a man’s view of mortal affairs, — to feel that the love between men and women, the marrying and giving in marriage, occupy, in fact, so small a portion of either existence or thought. When I die, I know what people will say of me. They will say that I did my duty with a kind of steadiness, not knowing how I have groaned under the rod.”

She first made the acquaintance of the Carlyles while collecting her materials for the Life of Edward Irving; and she always claimed to understand them and their unique relation to each other much better than did most of their English contemporaries, through her own old Scotch blood and the memory of her delightful Scotch mother. Of her she has left a portrait as picturesque as Barrie’s of Margaret Ogilvie, and she thought her very like Mrs. Carlyle. “ God bless them,” she says, — " that much maligned and misunderstood pair ! His treatment of me was not much like the old ogre his false friends have made him out to be ! ” She won the heart of Mrs. Carlyle directly, and saw always the most affectionate and sunny side of her ; but she owns to having been mortally afraid beforehand of approaching the Sage of Chelsea, and proportionably relieved when he deigned to bestow his difficult approval on her history of his early friend. Nothing, he declared, had so taken him by the heart for years as that biography. Its author was “ a fine, clear, loyal, sympathetic female being, worth whole cartloads of Mulocks, Brontës, and things of that sort !

It is in very truth a masterly piece of human portraiture, and hardly less so is her life of another eminent pietist, though a totally different type of man, — much more complex and sophisticated, — Count Charles de Montalembert. Him she had known personally from the anxious first days of her widowhood, when she gallantly undertook, among other tremendous tasks, the translation of his monumental work on the Monks of the West. “ Montalembert’s English,” observes Mrs. Oliphant, “was delightful, perfect in accent and idiom. I don’t remember any mistake of his except the amusing and flattering one with which he expressed his surprise, when we first met, to find me ‘ not so respectable as he had supposed.’ ... It was then 1865, and I must have been thirty-seven, and had gray hair. Montalembert himself was, I think, one of the most interesting men I ever met. He had that curious mixture of the — shall I say ?— supernaturalist and man of the world (not mystic, he was no mystic, and yet miraculous, if there is any meaning in that) which has always had so great an attraction for me; keen and sharp as a sword, and yet open to every superstition far more than I ever could have been, who looked up to him with a sort of admiring wonder and sympathy, not without a smile in it. He was a little like Laurence Oliphant in this ; but Laurence was not a highly educated man like Montalembert.”

Some of the most graphic of Mrs. Oliphant’s letters describe her visit in the winter of 1871 to the widowed countess at the château of La Roche-enBressy, when she was preparing Montalembert’s Memoir. When she came, twenty years later, as an aging woman, to tell the life stories of Principal Tulloch of St. Andrews and of Laurence Oliphant, she was writing of intimate personal friends, the secrets of whose mental being they might, themselves have communicated to her. But her sympathetic perception of the springs of human action, and her seemingly instantaneous divination of the key to a character, served her almost, as well with subjects she had never known, and served her to the very last. They are nowhere more conspicuous than in her Life of Jeanne d’Arc and in the sketches of early contributors to Maga embodied in her history — unfinished, alas ! — of the house of Blackwood. And yet these tasks were executed when hope was dead, even in her buoyant breast, and she had no more interest in her work at all; and their excellence appears to be due merely to the automatic infallibility of a fine intellectual machine kept always in bright run ningv order.

Along with Mrs. Oliphant’s own letters, in this volume, there are given a few from distinguished people to herself, and among them several from Kinglake, the brilliant author of Eothen and the History — which is rather a prose epic — of the Crimean War. Mr. Kinglake was a great admirer and a diligent reader of Mrs. Oliphant’s novels, of which he never thought there could be too many; and the point upon which, in discussing them and their characters, he always dwells, with a wonder that approaches envy, is her unflagging imagination, — a quality in which he himself, as an historian, has not always been thought deficient. But he was quite right: her one supreme and incommunicable native endowment — that which enabled her both to draw real men and women to the life, and to create an almost endless succession and variety of living and convincing fictitious types — was imagination, kindled and guided by inexhaustible human sympathy.

The discovery of her own gift for biography was a delight to her, and she had a passing impulse, half jestingly expressed in a letter to Miss Isabella Blackwood, to forsake for it all other and more trivial forms of composition. " I like biography. I have a great mind to set up in that as my future trade, and tout for orders. Do you know anybody that wants his or her life taken ? Don’t fail to recommend me, if you do.” And not far from the same time she wrote with reference to one of the very cleverest of her own novels : “ As for Miss Majoribanks, I am a little disgusted with her, and with novels in general: with the latter so greatly that I am contemplating an indignant address to all who are worth their salt in the trade, praying them to give it up, and take to some more honest mode of livelihood. Let us take people’s lives or anything that is worth the trouble.” To similar purport she says early in the autobiography, — which might more accurately be termed her Apology : “ Occasionally my books pleased me ; very often they did not. I always took pleasure in a little bit of fine writing (afterward called in the family language ' a trot’), which, to do myself justice, was only when I got moved by my subject, and began to feel my heart beat, and perhaps a little water in my eyes, and ever more really satisfied by some little conscious felicity of words than by anything else.” And yet once more : “ I shall not leave anything behind me that will live. What does it matter ? Nothing at all now, — never anything to speak of. At my most ambitious times, I would rather my children had remembered me as their mother than in any other way, and my friends as their friend. . . . God help us all, what is the good done by such work as mine, or even better than mine ? . . . There is one thing, however, I have always whimsically resented, and that is the contemptuous compliments that for many years were the right things to address to me, and to say of me, as to my ‘industry.’ Now that I am old, the world is a little more respectful, and I have not heard so much about my industry for some time. The delightful superiority of it in the mouth of people who had neither industry nor anything else to boast of used to make me very wroth, I avow. The same kind of feeling, the other day, even, made me comically angry at a bit of a young person who complimented me on my Beleaguered City. Now, I am quite willing that people like Mr. Hutton should speak of The Beleaguered City as the one little thing among my productions that is worth remembering, but I felt inclined to say to the other: ‘ The Beleaguered City, indeed, my young woman ! I should think a good deal less than that might be good enough for you.’ By which it may perhaps be suspected that I do not always think such small beer of myself as I say, but this is a pure matter of comparison.”

Always the same humor and spirit and captivating spontaneity ; the wholesome light of common day ; the broad, clear outlook upon life and its values ; the irrepressible candor, now pensive, and now playful! If ever there was a soul that needed not conversion to become as that of a little child, it was hers.

Nevertheless, as the clouds returned after the brief sunshine of her noonday, and the storm of calamity gathered which darkened the late afternoon of her earthly life and tried her spiritual mettle to the utmost, we find Mrs. Oliphant’s personal record assuming more and more the character of a severe and sometimes almost remorseful self-examination. Her boys — the objects of her passionate and unwearying devotion, for whom alone she had been ambitious — both disappointed her cruelly. Brilliant and amiable, and invariably sweet and flattering to herself, they were morally unstable and incurably indolent. They did little or nothing to justify to the world the mother’s fond faith in their powers ; and while both lived to be over thirty, — that is, to the age at which she herself was the willing breadwinner for a large and expensive household, — neither was ever able to maintain himself, or to lighten in any way, save by the sunshine of delightful manners, the burden that she had carried so long. And how far, she now and then sadly asked herself, was she answerable for their failure ? Had her lavish devotion actually minimized their sense of responsibility, — her glad selfdenial entangled them irreparably in habits of selfish luxury ?

Such questions are natural to a spirit as ingenuous and as far from any tendency to self-exaltation as that of this Mother of Sorrows. To cry mea culpa for the faults of others is the instinctive impulse of a generous heart. But to me it seems that she distressed herself needlessly, and these are the passages which I, if I had been her editor, would certainly have omitted from the fragmentary record of her life. Private confession may be good for the soul ; it is undoubtedly comforting, and needful to many a soul of the most élite. But only in very exceptional cases, as I believe, is public confession good either for the confessor or for the public. Minute researches into motive, the subtle analysis of foregone mistakes and misadventures, are always of doubtful profit; but at any rate they belong to the arcana of the human spirit, and should have but one confidant. The truth which leaps to the eyes in this case, the only one with which the world has any concern, is that the moral infirmities of Cyril and Francis Oliphant were due largely to the constitutional taint which they inherited from their father, and which closed the careers of both before they had had time to retrieve the faults of their adolescence. If their mother were responsible for their weakness at all, it was only in some obscure physiological sense, through the excessive and abnormal, though as it seemed indispensable activity of her own brain at the time of their birth and nurture. It is here, if anywhere, that the honorable and yet sorrowful story of her life may furnish an important lesson. Intelligence is not sexless, as many people contend, and Mrs. Oliphant’s was, when all is said, only an unspoiled feminine intelligence of the very best kind. I do not know, either, why I should use that deprecatory word “ only.” Hers was one of the two kinds of genius which apparently have been appointed for the illumination and rectification of the world. The intuition suggested by the Oriental proverb is, after all, a noble instrument for the discovery of truth, and one no less legitimate than the power of acquiring and coördinating an infinitude of dates and facts. Or rather, it is an essential factor in all discovery; for induction at best can only justify deduction, and imagination must precede them both.

And so I come back to the thought which was uppermost in my mind when I finished Mrs. Oliphant’s Apologia, and I ask myself and the reader how far the efficiency of her vigorous and beautiful but comparatively untrained powers would have been enhanced — whether it might not possibly have been impaired — if, instead of working in freedom, her mind had been constrained from girlhood by masculine rules and methods, and weighted by a heavier panoply of masculine armor.

Harriet Waters Preston.

  1. Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. Oliphant. Edited by Mrs. HARRY COGHILL. New York : Dodd, Mead & Co. 1899.
  2. Not absolutely unassisted, because she had for a number of years a pension of £100 a year from the Crown. But the effort to secure for her, when she was first widowed, one of the lodging’s at Hampton Court proved unsuccessful.