Margaret Oliphant, née Wilson (1828–97) married her first cousin Frank Wilson Oliphant in 1852. Since her own second name was Oliphant, she became Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant, but she is usually referred to just as ‘Mrs Oliphant’ – interestingly, without her husband’s first name, like Mrs Gaskell, but unlike Mrs Henry Wood or Mrs Humphry Ward. These were four professional writers who did not feel the need to publish under a masculine or ambivalent name, but were not quite ready to have ‘Margaret’, ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Ellen’ or ‘Mary Augusta’ on their title pages.
Margaret Oliphant was definitely a professional writer: unlike the other three, she desperately needed to support herself, after the death from tuberculosis of Frank Oliphant in 1860. She had to maintain not only two daughters and two sons (a third son died at just a day old) but an alcoholic brother: on her husband’s death, she was left in Italy with her children, £1,000 in debt, and pregnant with her last child. As she became more successful as a writer, more distant, destitute relatives came out of the woodwork: a cousin entered the household as secretary-factotum; when her brother went bankrupt, she took in and supported his children and (later) his widow. Both her daughters died as children, but her writing paid for the boys to be educated at Eton, and appropriate education and support were also provided for nieces and nephews.
She managed to keep the extended family precariously afloat by writing diligently and regularly almost every day – or rather night: having performed the duties of a Victorian middle-class lady by day, she settled to write once the visitors had gone home and the children were all in bed. She wrote in many genres – periodical articles, novels, short stories, non-fiction, literary criticism, whatever publishers would pay for. This makes her sound like a hack, but she clearly wasn’t: her novels, especially the series known as the ‘Chronicles of Carlingford’, which offer Jane Austen’s archetypal ‘three or four families in a country village’ during the 1860s and 1870s, are witty and acute, and her non-fiction is thoroughly researched and entertainingly written.
We have reissued Mrs Oliphant’s autobiography, her life of Sheridan (the first of the ‘English Men of Letters’ series to be written by a woman), her three-volume history of the Edinburgh publishing house of Blackwood, her edited Women Novelists of Queen Victoria’s Reign: A Book of Appreciations, and three historical works: The Makers of Florence (1876), The Makers of Venice (1887) and The Makers of Modern Rome (1895). Regular readers of this blog will not be staggered to learn that it’s the Venice one that I was chiefly interested in, and by a very happy chance, the proof copy arrived in the office just in time for me to put it in my luggage. And now I’m back, and, barely pausing to put a load in the washing machine, I’m ready to share my thoughts on her work.
Mrs Oliphant’s purpose is to tell the story of Venice from its earliest, almost mythical, days to the early sixteenth century, through the history of the individuals who she believes to have been the key formers of the Most Serene Republic – she definitely is of the school of History as People rather than as economics and trends. The book is divided into four parts: The Doges, By Land and By Sea (on explorers, admirals and generals, including the (non-Venetian) condottieri Carmagnola and Colleone), The Painters, and The Men of Letters. She has clearly done her homework, in Italian and Latin as well as English: she quotes historians and chroniclers including Dandolo, Sabellico and Sanudo, and is appreciative of the work of Rawdon Brown, the great English historian of Venice, of Ruskin, and of Sir Henry Yule on Marco Polo. She has also done the leg-work: the book is dedicated to Elizabeth, Lady Cloncurry, and Emma Fitzmaurice, ‘kind and dear companions of many a Venetian ramble’; and you can still follow her directions to, for example, the stone in Campo S. Agostin marking the house of the traitor Bajamonte Tiepolo, razed to the ground in 1310
or the house of Marin Sanudo, whose library was once as great a tourist attraction in the city as the Doge’s palace or the treasury of St Mark’s. (Him Indoors had a bit of trouble with this photo, as the elderly lady sitting at the open window next to the plaque was doing her hair with those flexible curlers that make you look like Medusa, and clearly thought he was some sort of mad paparazzo.)
What may not be to everyone’s taste – though I enjoyed it – is Mrs Oliphant’s tendency to psychologise: she is happy to relate an inaccurate version of an incident, because it seems to her to be psychologically truer (though of course this is not how she puts it!) than what really happened, and her analyses of motives, and descriptions of thought processes, show the novelist moulding her material rather than the historian ordering and relating known facts.
Overall, though, a well researched, well written, often amusing, and occasionally poignant work – well worth reading, though admittedly all the better for being read on the spot!