Philobiblon: Subversive ideas from a circulating library

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Subversive ideas from a circulating library

Having finished Margaret Oliphant's Hester (1883), I can't but be amazed by its clear feminist stance - at least in its assertion of the possibility of the single life for women, and its clear understandings of the social position that many found themselves in.

"That would have been better surely - to be independent," Hester said.
[Emma replies]"In some ways. To have a paid salary would be very nice - but it hurts a girl's chance." [by which she means opportunity to marry - and what happens to this entirely practical Emma in terms of marriage - she marries a fleeing scoundrel and fraudster, who has asked her on a whim, might be said to be a reflection of the author's view of her approach.] (p140)

On the question of a possible marriage:

"This was and generally is the great difference between the man and woman in such a controversy; until he had spoken, it was a shame to her that she should ask herself did he intend to speak; but Edward felt no shame if ever the idea crossed his mind that he might be mistaken in supposing she loved him." (p. 201)

I can also only admire Oliphant, who published more than 120 books between 1849 and 1897. And for someone working at that pace - in pen and ink - she does write well. An Edinburgh Review critic in 1899, that "Mrs. Oliphant had gifts denied to Trollope; she had eloquence, charm of style, grace and ease where he is heavy and clumsy."

One article (PDF) suggests she was:

"In her ambivalent and shifting position on women'’s rights she could be seen as a representative of the older generation of 'respectable'” Victorian middle-class women who, as a result of personal experience, became more sympathetic to some of the aims of the women’s movement as the century came to a close, while clinging to the strict moral code of an earlier age and remaining firmly opposed to the sexual liberalism of the fin de siecle.

But in its assertion of a professional, single life, - this article sets out the nature of the three-volume novel and the way it worked economically with circulating libraries. I'm imagining say a milliner's daughter in a humble middle-class suburb of London, or a prosperous farmer's daughter say, reading their library volume and getting all sorts of ideas of which their mother and father would not approve.

(And it has an interesting view of the 1880s.)

Her writing is accessible - give it a go!


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