Friday, November 06, 2009

And/Or Margaret Oliphant

After one has either read and/or absorbed through osmosis much canonical literature, one often turns for literary sustenance to the second tier, which forms something of a “secondary canon” among the cognoscenti. You find yourself delightedly reading George Gissing, Charlotte M. Yonge, Dorothy Baker, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and others who are not household names.

I went through an intensive Margaret Oliphant stage a few years ago. It began with a shriek of “Oh, I love Mrs. Oliphant!” at a used bookstore when I discovered Virago editions of The Chronicles of Carlingford on the $2 sales shelves. Actually, I had read none of Oliphant at that time: I meant that I hoped to love Mrs. Oliphant. She wrote something like 120 books, and I don’t know about you, but 120 books can keep me occupied for a long time. I very much enjoyed The Chronicles of Carlingford

(Miss Marjoribanks is my favorite), so I began to collect Mrs. Oliphant in Kessinger and Elibron Classics -very expensive, no-frills reprints. Yet if you want to read The Ladies Lindores, Kirsteen, The Duke’s Daughter, or many of the others, you turn to these.

I finally got around to Margaret Oliphant’s spellbinding novella, Two Strangers (Elibron), only 195 pages of huge print. The writing is very plain and unadorned--this is not her best style - but I’m stunned by the subtle presentation of the situation and very modern ending. Published in 1894, one of her later works, Two Strangers centers on the Wradisley family. Ralph, the adventurous younger son, returns home for the first time in years, bringing with him a friend, Bertram, who has written some journalistic pieces and aspires to write more (the writing terrifies the conventional family until they find he wrote "only about Africa" and does not intend to write about them). But Bertram is not the only stranger in their life: a beautiful, fascinating widow, Mrs. Nugent, has moved in nearby with her five-year-old daughter, Tiny. Lucy, the Wradisley daughter,is enraptured by her new friend and wishes her brother to meet Mrs. Nugent right away. He, however, prefers to smoke cigars with Bertram.

The other members of the Wradisley family, however, are fascinated by Mrs. Nugent: the oldest son, Reginald, wants to marry her, and his mother, Mrs. Wradisley, loves her dearly. Then Mrs. Nugent's daughter, Tiny, forms a bond with the stranger, Bertram, who does not meet her mother till near the end. And the meeting of Bertram and Mrs. Nugent catalzyes - well, one expects a romance.

I was very surprised by the ending.


Laura McDonald said...

I too have thought I would love Oliphant, if I ever got around to reading anything by her. And now I think I just will!

Mad Housewife said...

Oliphant is great. And I think Hester and Miss Marjoribanks are both available in Penguins.

I hope you find one you like!

Vintage Reading said...

I've not read Oliphant or Charlotte M Yonge. As you say, sometimes there are treasures to be found in the second tier!

Mad Housewife said...

I love the second tier. The classics are great, but sometimes one finds a gem. I can remember the days when Willa Cather was considered just a "craftsman."