Margaret Oliphant, 1828-1897, an extremely prolific writer, produced several novels and stories that place her in the front rank of Victorian fiction. Born at Wallyford, East Lothian, she grew up mainly in Glasgow and Liverpool. She was an avid reader and began to write at an early age, publishing her first novel, Passages in the life of Margaret Maitland, in 1849. Thereafter, for the best part of half a century, she produced fiction, biography, travel books and articles on a vast range of topics.
Although she lived only for short periods in Scotland, many of her novels have Scottish themes, both historical and contemporaneous. Among her earlier Scottish novels is Katie Stewart, a true story (1853), set in 1745 and drawing on her own family background. A later Scottish novel, Effie Ogilvie (1886), explores the difficulties of a young woman longing to be more than a merely decorative wife.
After the death of her husband in 1859, Oliphant relied on her writing to support her family. She had to take on journalistic work and wrote frequently for Blackwood's magazine. She felt that the pressure to write for money denied her the opportunity to produce first-rate work, but nevertheless she had a "powerful impulse towards excellence", a phrase she uses of one of her own characters, which led to some impressive fiction. After decades of neglect, her achievement is now beginning to be recognised.
The first fiction to become popular was the group of novels known as The Carlingford chronicles, closely-observed and vividly comic narratives of domestic and clerical life. Most telling of these is Miss Marjoribanks (1866) in which spirited and gently satiric characterisation produces a substantial and highly entertaining novel. Her later novels tend to be darker in tone, anti-romantic and critical of entrenched social values.
Much of her fiction examines the position of women and the injustice and sterility of denying women outlets of fulfillment. Hester (1883) addresses this issue uncompromisingly, as does Kirsteen (1890), one of her last and best novels. She tackled marital unhappiness and the relations between parents and children with a relentlessly realistic intelligence. The Ladies Lindores (1883) and A Country gentleman and his family (1886) are powerful examples.
Oliphant's stories of the supernatural are among her best work, psychologically perceptive and with lasting resonance: The Library window is one of the most subtly modulated Scottish short stories ever to be written. Although her work often shows the strain of being turned out under pressure, Margaret Oliphant was an acutely observant and formidably intelligent novelist. Her trenchant voice, narrative drive and ironic exposure of injustice and hypocrisy provide an invaluable commentary on Victorian society. Her prose is purposeful rather than elegant, with a rugged integrity and often subversive in both intention and result.