August 20th, 2015


Margaret Oliphant

I've been looking on line for Margaret Oliphant's complete bibliography- and can't find it- but understand it's enormous.   She was one of the drudges of literature, condemned to the word mines to earn a crust for her family. She put her sons through Eton (well, that was her own foolish choice) and then had to support them into lounging adulthood. She was the mainstay of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and could turn her hand to almost anything that was asked of her-  novels (Wikipedia credits her with 97), critical articles, miscellaneous non-fiction. I've read her Life of St Francis; it's excellent.

I've read one of the big novels too. I remember liking it. I think there was a doctor in it.

She enjoyed solid success, but never the kind of success that would have freed her to polish her little squares of ivory at her own pace. In old age she opined that if the dice had fallen differently she might have been as great as George Eliot. I wouldn't argue with that. She clearly had greatness in her.

It's there in The Library Window- not only a brilliantly effective ghost story but a thing of real beauty- gauzy, ambiguous, full of unresolved mystery- supported by a mastery of the kind of social realism (acquired by her hackwork on all those mid-Victorian three-deckers) that is the necessary bedrock of the classic ghost story.  An adolescent girl dreams through the long, shadowless evenings of a Scottish summer. Her aunt and her elderly friends give it as their opinion that the window in the building across the street is a dummy- painted on the wall for the looks of the thing- but surely- surely- there are shapes to be seen behind the glass...