Ghosts and l'écriture-femme

The Beleaguered City

by Margaret Oliphant

Claude Lorraine (1600-82), The Enchanted Castle

The following postings come from three different discussions. First on Trollope-l briefly in 1999; then at length on WomenWritersThroughthe Ages in November-December 2003, then again briefly on Trollope-l that Christmas. So there is some repetition.

To Trollope-l

December 19, 1999

RE: Margaret Oliphant's 'A Beleaguered City'

Duffy makes the point he can't believe the above story is relatively unknown to a wider audience -- it's not obscure to people who read ghost stories nor people interested in fiction by women of the 19th century -- because of its awkward length. Agreed. However, I didn't make the argument the story is relatively unknown because of its length. All I was saying is it's hard to find it, and it is rarely included in popular anthologies of ghost stories. The editor of one I own alludes to it and says he has included 'The Open Door' because it's shorter.

I could of course -- as many women do -- point to Oliphant's being a woman. However, I don't think that will cut much clothe with Duffy or many of the people on the list. Neither does it satisfy me -- though there is a parallel between the length of this story and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, now a canonical text and at the time very obscure.

Maybe it's also that the story is a ghost story. These are not exactly popular on syllabi among my colleagues today. They do not lend themselves to politicisation; we cannot say ah, here we learn this sociallly upbeat lesson; and there we learn the other. People who write about ghost stories seriously often discuss the problem of getting people today to take them seriously.

On the other hand, it's not frivolous. It is so serious, so intense, and its message is conservative, an existential tale which grows out of Olphant's own troubled obsession with death. In the piece I originally posted on this list about it I said it reminded me of Camus's The Plague. It may be that like Camus's story and Chopin's, Oliphant can speak to us now because we want to listen to what she has to say while ghost story readers didn't originally.

Oliphant was not that respected; she was a woman who churned them out. She was busy making money. I know that the story originally appeared in a Christmas number and then was expanded and appeared not alone (a free standing novel as it were) but with other of Oliphant's stories of the unseen and seen. The title would have made sceptical and elite among the Victorians laugh at the volume. She did write some embarrassingly jejeune stories.

It's also a short story, and until recently was not published separately. I don't know that 'A Shabby Genteel Story' by Thackeray has ever been printed alone. It reads like a brilliant, concise, and indeed someways darker version of Vanity Fair. It's rarely talked about. Maybe here is our explanation for the relatlve obscurity of this tale.

However, as I say I didn't mean to say anything beyond the sad truth that 'A Beleaguered City' can only be found in anthologies of novellas and a couple of books (one available at Blackwell's) which reprint some of Oliphant's stories. I am afraid it is not really reprinted in these volumes just because it is so good. One of them is a Scottish publication; let us respect Oliphant and read her because she's Scottish. I think that's a bad reason for respecting her work. Imagine there's no countries say John Lennon. People are alas apparently hard-wired for tribalism, and all its fallacies. The other is edited by a feminist. So we are invited to like and buy because the stories are by a woman.

Ellen Moody

December 1999

To Trollope-l

: Re: "A Beleaguered City:" A summary

In brief: it is the story of the citizens of a town who are driven outside their walls when their dead invade their city and push them out. Although the story opens in summertime, within a very few pages natural world suddenly becomes wintry, the days short and bleak, the sky one in which we expect snow. The citizens are terrified by nothing but a deep sense of thousands of dead people who they once knew inhabiting their houses, streets, intimate spaces.

The prelude tells of several incidents which show people no longer really believe in another world, or, at least don't act as if they do, incidents in which a few people explicitly argue that the new God is Money. The technique recalls Collins in that it is a series of narratives told by different people who are our reporters, each of whom experienced the incident differently given their character, perspective, tasks, sex, circumstances. The "feel" of the story, as I just said, reminds me of Camus's The Plague: the central narrator is the Mayor, a man who prides himself on his rationality. As we go deeper into the narratives, we find ourselves reading a visionary all the town always despised; the mayor's wife, a deeply emotional woman. The key incident for many in the town is they are made to feel the presence of some beloved person who has died. The visionary may have made love to a dead wife; the Mayor's wife saw a dead daughter's face; the dead leave curious tokens, ring bells, made uncanny noises.

There is an atmosphere of suspended awe which is compelling; there are numbers of allusions to Dante's Commedia which made me think Oliphant was consciously creating in little a Victorian journey to that realm of the mind, imagination, myth, religion (what you will) that Dante did before her. Her Land of Darkness makes a similarly effective use of Dante's Inferno and Purgatio.

One source of the power of Oliphant's ghost stories, their content, and themes is, as most biographers and critics agree, her crushing bad luck in losing a husband to TB, two sons before they reached 30, a nephew whom she brought up (died in India), and a daughter at age 12. She was like old lady Mary in that she adopted a girl; however, Mrs Oliphant left a will :). She yearns to make contact again, and yet the whole idea of a world of the dead surrounding one is dreadful, one which can drive one mad. Her pictures of the afterlife and the afterworld are frightening, anything but consoling. There is no benign justice and no easy comfort in these stories.

Ellen Moody

Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Margaret Oliphant

Hello all

We're due to start 'A Beleaguered City' by Margaret Oliphant at the weekend, to begin our ghost stories for Christmas. Here are links to a couple of websites with information and links about her.

And here's a link to a biography from the 1911 Encylopaedia Britannica:

I've received my copy of the Canongate edition of A Beleaguered City and Other Tales of the Seen and the Unseen, and was delighted to see that it is partly based on Selected Short Stories of the Supernatural, a Scottish Academic Press edition of six of Oliphant's tales which I borrowed from my local library a couple of years ago. Now I have all those stories, with Margaret Gray's notes, plus 'A Beleaguered City' and one extra short story, and also Jenni Calder's introduction. So I'm well-pleased.

Here's the start of Calder's introduction, hopefully to whet people's appetites:

"Margaret Oliphant has been described as one of the greatest writers of ghost stories this country has ever produced and this collection demonstrates why. Her short novel 'A Beleaguered City' and these seven stories have a luminous intensity, a psychological realism and a gripping evocation of place. One of the stories, 'The Library Window', rates among the best in the English language. If some of Oliphant's full-length fiction can, however rewarding, be somewhat daunting, these tories show her at her best, and provide an excellent introduction to her work."

The only full-length novel by Oliphant I've read so far is 'Salem Chapel', one of her Carlingford Chronicles, which were partly inspired by Trollope's Barchester series. I remember thinking the start of this was brilliant - I was very interested to see that she takes the minister of a non-conformist chapel as her hero, which is unusual among the Victorian novelists I've read, where often these ministers tend to be played for laughs and portrayed as insincere and smarmy. Oliphant really goes inside the chapel and makes the congregation real, with the endless tea parties and the small-town gossip. But then suddenly the book changes completely and veers into a melodramatic sensation story - according to the Virago introduction, she was under great pressure to produce a bestseller and this was the reason for the change of tack.

All the best,

Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Margaret Olphant at Elibron

For those who can reach Elibron (and buy), I'd like to remark that they have no less than 96 items of facsimile reprints.

Go to: %2C+margaret&lang%5B%5D=1&where=0&kind%5B%5D=1&search.x=18&search.y=8

I'll come back later today or this weekend, to tell which novels, short stories and biographies Merryn Williams recommends for anyone who is interested. She is very good on Oliphant's realistic fiction. She also contextualizes Oliphant's infamous attack on Hardy -- in a book I'm reading just now, Peter Borsay on Bath, it's persuasively argued that what's omitted from later histories is as important as what's left out. In that same year Oliphant attacked Hardy, she published "The LIbrary Window" and several of her better commentaries on behalf of feminism appeared just at that time -- but not from the angle of the "sex- question" (her words), but a "fuller" (her word again) picture.


Date: Wed, 26 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Margaret Olphant at Elibron
Reply-To: Ellen Moody

For those who can reach Elibron (and buy), I'd like to remark that they have no less than 96 items of facsimile reprints.

Many thanks to Ellen for the link to the Oliphant books. It's amazing to see that Elibron have so many available as reprints - I've just been doing a little more exploring and see they also have a number of Thackeray titles, including a few which I did not realise had been reprinted at all since the 19th century, let alone in paperback!

I've ordered a copy of Oliphant's 'Kirsteen' from a British bookseller at after Joan kindly alerted me - so I will be able to read this one and will look forward to it. It seems to be one of her best but out of print and quite elusive - if we do read an Oliphant novel here some time in the future, I get the impression that 'Hester' and 'Miss Marjoribanks' are more widely available.

All the best,

Margaret Olphant's Autobiography

As further preparation -- and out of interest -- this week I read Margaret Oliphant's posthumously published Autobiography. It compares Trollope's Autobiography as Oliphant wrote her most famous series (at the time) of novels by modelling them on Trollope's: the Carlingford series takes us to the chapel instead of establishment set. She is apparently by many readers still considered a lesser or minor novelist -- though we've seen how many books by her are in print. Like Trollope, she wrote her books at a driving pace while trying to live a full life outside writing.

I wish I could convey just how moving and beautiful this short piece of work is. She began writing it a about ten years before she died; she originally intended it for her one surviving child, but he too died before her. It ends on her turning to his memory and suddenly saying: "And now here I am all alone. I cannot write any more."

It is more than a cri de coeur. She retells her life with the same kind of intense consciousness we find in Trollope's Autobiography. She hasn't his ability to articulate how she creates characters nor how this creation relates to her life; she only tries to distinguish an earlier self very vaguely. On the other hand, her autobiography does not in the second half suddenly turn into a success story. It remains personally focused throughout. There is no pattern of conversion, but rather an endless quest. Like Trollope she is reticent about sex and difficult details that are shameful (for example one of her brothers was an alcoholic); she is also vague on dates.

However, she is continuously intimate. This is all recollection. She is not trying to hide herself from us -- which at times I feel Trollope does. She evokes places beautifully -- Scotland, London, Florence, Italy, a frantic ride on a train. Her husband's death from TB is frankly told -- blood everywhere and his terror and despair and depression over what he failed to achieve (he was a painter) too. She turns to her God, moves around regardless of time and space; is so much there vividly, and is willing frankly to explore the dark and grief in her heart right now.

Some of it would probably make some readers laugh. She is very cross about George Eliot. She keeps bringing George Eliot up somewhat resently. She is aware how much less her work is respected, and keeps making little sarcastic comments about Eliot's comparatively easier life, the worshipful Lewes. She compares herself to Charlotte Bronte and feels that although her "powers" are not of course "equal" to Bronte's, nonetheless, "I have had far more experience, and I think, a fuller conception of life. I have learned to take perhaps more a man's view of mortal affairs." Perhaps here she is thinking of Bronte as sheerly as writer of love stories. I know modern readers don't like what's called whining, but I don't resent this. I feel for her and want to tell her her books are good. She is also funny and sharp in her social scenes.

I've thus far read a remarkably good essay on Austen, a very good ghost story, two of the earliest Carlingford books and now this. I know we spoke of her earlier this year, and several people went to look at some of her novels and found them tepid or conventional. It may be so. The Autobiography is a living vivid work, and I can't help feeling I would like Oliphant. Her tone is that of a Scots Gaskell.

Ironically this book seems not to be in print. As ever, a few novels are in print. I bought it off the Net on a used bookstore site. It comes with a second half, and the whole is called The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs M. W. O. Oliphant, arranged and edited by Mrs Harry Coghill (New York, 1899). Perhaps on Victoria someone mentioned a new edition coming out? This book is one made by the friend, Mrs Coghill who took Mrs Oliphant's fragment, rearranged it slightly, and then published it with letters to fill out the outline. Mrs Coghill does tell us that there were other letters too intimate to publish and someone who destroyed another bunch. Long life then is no protection for one's letters necessarily either.

My favorite passage comes towards the beginning of the book. She is explaining to herself why she is writing this autobiography: "Here, then, for a little try at the autobiography. I ought ot be doing some work, getting on a little in advance for to-morrow, which gives a special zest to doing nothing: to doing what has no need to be done -- and Sunday evenings have always been a time to fantasticare, to do what one pleased; and I have dropped out of the letters I used to do on these occaison, having -- which, by the way, is a little sad when one comes to think of it -- no one to write to, of anything that is beneath the surface. Curious! I had scarcely realised it before. Now for a beginning."


Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2003 15:45:46 -0000 Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 1

Hello all,

I've just finished reading Margaret Oliphant's 'A Beleaguered City' - I found it impossible to leave off halfway through and had to finish it, although it was a story I wanted to read quite slowly because of the intensity and richness of the style, to try to take everything in.

Looking for background information on the web, I didn't find much, but was surprised to see that this novella seems to get quite a few mentions on science fiction websites. I'd have said it is definitely a ghost story rather than science fiction.

The first thing that struck me about this story was that it is set in France, in "the town of Semur in the Haute Bourgogne". I wonder if maybe Oliphant set the story in France, rather than Scotland or England, partly in order to distance it from the everyday world of her readers, and help with the suspension of disbelief needed for a ghost story to work.

There's a footnote in the Canongate edition which suggests other reasons for the setting:

"Margaret Oliphant visited Semur en Auxois in 1871. The Franco- Prussian War had come to an end in January of that year, which was followed by the Paris Commune and several years of upheaval leading to the declaration of the Third Republic in 1875. 'A Beleaguered City' contains a number of references to the unsettled politics of this period."

So, from this, maybe Oliphant also picked the setting because of this political turmoil, and the undercurrents of conflict between the Royalists and Republicans. There's a feeling that the city is already beleaguered even before the strange events of the story. I wondered if the phrase 'A Beleaguered City' is actually a quotation - it has a ring to me as if it may come from the Bible or from Bunyan, and when I was searching at Google for information on Oliphant's book I also came across many unrelated uses of the phrase. However, no source is given in the Canongate, so maybe the title is a well-known phrase rather than a quotation. Does anyone know?

It's striking that the story is set pretty well in the present day, rather than in a vaguely defined past, as often with ghost stories. But there are still the layers of narrators which seem to be important to create the sense of distance and mystery. This story is told in the first person through a series of narrators who each experienced part of what happened, something Wilkie Collins also does in several of his novels. Here, the Maire's voice dominates, but we do also get other people's versions.

All the narrators are unreliable in different ways - I didn't realise this at first, and took everything the Maire was saying at face value. Then after a few pages I started to notice the pompous comments which come as digs to the reader that not everything he says is necessarily so, and had to begin again. It seems to me as if he is at first presented with quite heavy irony, but this softens and he becomes a more sympathetic figure as the story goes on. At the start, the Maire, Martin Dupin, plainly has a very high opinion of himself, assuring readers of his "most perfect family union" with his mother living alongside his wife - I think you immediately have to doubt whether this could really be quite as idyllic as he claims. There are also several other amusingly self- satisfied phrases such as "I have always been noted as a man of fine perceptions" and this great sentence in Chapter 2: "They were impressed, as is only natural, by the sight of my perfect self- possession: it helped them to acquire for themselves a demeanour befitting the occasion; and I felt, though still in great physical weakness and agitation, the consoling consciousness of having fulfilled my functions as head of the community."

Martin comes across in these opening chapters as a man who believes he is a natural leader, and takes a patronising attitude towards those around him. He has a strong sense of duty, but that duty is largely to uphold his own wonderful reputation in the eyes of the world. He loves his wife, Agnes, but his love for her is idealised and doesn't involve actually taking any notice of what she says - he calls her an "angel" but what he says goes. Martin is a sceptic about religious matters, and thinks it is the job of women, like his Agnes, to worry about the spiritual world and to pray - this isn't a man's job.

There's a striking passage about this in the first chapter, where Martin says "The bon Dieu - if, indeed, that great being is as represented to us by the Church - must naturally care as much for one half of His creatures as for the other, though they have not the same weight in the world; and consequently the faith of the women must hold the balance straight, especially if, as is said, they exceed us in point of numbers." Straight after this he says he "abominates" a woman who professes freedom of thought. Men can be sceptics, but women must believe.

Martin also rarely goes to Mass, and has been instrumental in preventing the Sisters' Mass from being heard at the hospital, in case the services disturb the sick people - a controversial move which his own wife and mother are both worried about.

I'll cut this posting into two.

All the best,

Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 2

Hello all, In the opening chapter, a picture is quickly painted of a city caught up in a materialistic pursuit of money, symbolised by the troublemaker, Jacques Richard, who boldly declares "Vive l'argent! There is no bon Dieu but money." Martin is disturbed by this, and also by the repeated refrain: "It is enough to make the dead rise out of their graves." This is just what is about to happen, so in one sense the story is showing what it would be like if a careless line of speech were translated into reality.

The first strange event to hit this community comes when, one day, a darkness gathers in the midst of summer - a darkness at noon. At first the people are bewildered and try to make a joke of it, but their forebodings grow.

The visionary, Paul Lecamus - a man half-despised by Martin because of his focus on the female world of religion - is the first to realise what is happening, that there is something supernatural involved rather than a strange natural phenomenon. He persuades Martin to go outside the city gates, where he is aware of a huge invisible crowd pressing against and crushing him. But, when Martin flees back into the city, he doesn't want to tell the people there what he has felt, falling back on the literal truth: "I have seen - nothing."

There's a powerful description of the dark night, where Martin cannot sleep, a darkness which still continues when he gets up the next day and wanders through the city. I was struck by these lines: " 'Enough to bring the dead out of their graves.' What strange words to make use of! It was rather now as if the world had become a grave in which we, though living, were held fast." People silently gather at the Cathedral, where they see the flaming red letters, appearing and then vanishing, with that word "Sommation" - a summons. The dead gathering outside the city send a message that they want to move in and take over, because they are the only ones who know the meaning of life. There's that strange phrase "nos autres morts" - "We other dead", suggesting that the people of the city are dead too.

The people obey without taking any decision to do so, finding themselves mysteriously compelled to go outside the city and into the countryside outside.

For me this is the strangest aspect of the whole story, that the living people themselves become the ghostly figures wandering outside the walls, unable to get into the world of their everyday lives, and staring longingly for a glimpse of their homes and their streets. The living feel what it is like to be ghosts.

Martin again shows his patronising patriarchal way of thinking, by trying to ensure that the women and children are taken care of, while the men wait outside the walls. But, at this juncture, he discovers that the women know more about what is happening than the men do. Many of them have glimpsed their lost loved ones, and his own Agnes has seen their dead daughter, Marie.

There's a powerful moment when Agnes asks Martin's permission to go into the city and try to communicate with the ghosts there. He rejects this bitterly:

" 'You love these dead tyrants. Yes,' I said, 'you love them best. You will go to - the majority, to the strongest. Do not speak to me! Because your God is on their side, you will forsake us too." This is such a strange idea, the dead as the majority, exerting tyranny over the living, and God as on the side of death.

At the end of this week's chapters, Lecamus comes out of the city, looking like a dying man, and tells how he has been in the city for three days among the ghosts - this period of three days keeps being repeated, reminding me of the crucifixion and resurrection. Three is also a magic number. Lecamus then takes over the narration in Chapter 3, with a poignant description of how he did not leave the city, but, remaining there with the ghosts, could only glimpse them for brief moments, and never saw his dead wife at all, only feeling her presence for a blissful short moment. I'm puzzled by the detail here that the only recognisable individual he saw was Martin's father - does anyone have thoughts on the significance of this?

One passage in Lecamus's account is picked out by Jenni Calder in her introduction to the Canongate edition as being a key point to the story:

"Why should it be a matter of wonder that the dead come back? the wonder is that they do not. Ah! That is the wonder. How one can go away who loves you, and never return nor speak, nor send any message - that is the miracle: not that the heavens should bend down and the gates of Paradise roll back and those who have left us return."

Calder compares this with Oliphant's comment in her autobiography about the death of her daughter, Maggie. "If I could but have a glimpse of her, a word from her, how it would comfort my heart," she wrote.

Calder also writes: "Lecamus is the only man who shares the women's power of seeing, and he acts as a conduit between the material concerns of the other men and the empathy experienced by the women. He carries an authority from which the women are excluded."

Looking forward to hearing what others think about this story,

All the best,

Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 1

The first thing that struck me about this story was that it is set in France, in "the town of Semur in the Haute Bourgogne". I wonder if maybe Oliphant set the story in France, rather than Scotland or England, partly in order to distance it from the everyday world of her readers, and help with the suspension of disbelief needed for a ghost story to work.

I was surprised by the setting (thinking of it in today's terms). For me it would work much better somewhere in Scotland. But perhaps she needed the walled town, the sensible, egocentric mayor and not the dreamy Scots.

I found interesting that Martin seems to realize on some level the difficult role his wife and the other women have to play in leaving all to the men.


Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 1

Joan Wall wrote:

I was surprised by the setting (thinking of it in today's terms). For me it would work much better somewhere in Scotland. But perhaps she needed the walled town, the sensible, egocentric mayor and not the dreamy Scots.

Thanks for this, Joan - it hadn't struck me how important the walled town is, but of course it is vital. I don't think there are many cities in Britain with complete town walls which could shut out intruders.

I also wondered if maybe it was important for Oliphant that the characters should be Roman Catholics, who might be more open to visions than the Presbyterians in Scotland.


Date: Sun, 23 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 2

Judy, the only reason I can come up with is that Martin being the person he is would only listen to and respect his father, perhaps also a symbol for God the Father.


Thanks, that seems likely. I can see that he certainly doesn't listen to what his wife says, despite all his descriptions of her as an "angel". It also seems like an added insult to Martin in a way that he can't see the unseen visitors, but somebody else - a man he patronises and doesn't usually take seriously - can see his father.


Subject: [Womenwriters] 'A Beleaguered City' Chapters 1 to 5: part 2

I've only only read a couple of stories by Oliphant before this, but I found myself wondering a lot about her religious stance on reading this one.

Judy and Joan have pointed up the overt religious symbolism of the resurrection, and the Lecamus story reminds me of both Lazarus stories in the Bible: Lazarus the beggar and the rich man; and Lazarus raised from the dead.

Then you have the idea of the coming of the City of God, but one that is only open to those that can truly hear, a refrain similar to that in Revelation. Strikingly, too, those who hear, hear with the heart. It sounds as if Oliphant was an adherent of an emotional religion of the heart. The heart and emotion are constantly compared to ratio, and it's ratio that comes a poor second.

I found it particularly interesting that the Curé as a representative of an organized Catholic church establisment was at first refused entry to the city, but presumably as a man of good heart he later was to go as messenger and bear witness with Martin. Two witnesses are mentioned in Revelation as well.

At the same time you have the other oppositions common to the post-Enlightenment and post-revolutionary France after the secularization of the state: State and Church; Republic and Aristocracy; Science and Religion to complete that of the rational and emotional.


Re: The Beleaguered City: Darkness (I)

This is my third time reading this story, and each time it has had a different effect on me. The first time I was simply astonished by the power of the story, and all the haunted ideas and poignant imagery. An example of the first would be Oliphant's sense that there are countless dead who overwhelmingly outnumber the living as people have been dying for generations and the ones alive right now represent but one generation. An example of the second would be Lecamus's encounter with his dead wife which this time I noticed was dominated by Oliphant's sense of bodies and souls being permeable:

I laid myself down on the floor where her feet would be. Her presence wrapped me round and round ... Neither did I need to see her face, nor to touch her hand. She was more near to me, more near, than when I held her in my arms. How long it was so, I cannot tell ... I knew nothing, felt nothing but Her alone ... We said ot each other everything without words -- heart overflowing into heart.

I also was alive to the irony to which the narrator is subjected ("homme moyen sensuel"), but someone of deep feeling and high intelligence. I remember liking the ironic comedy of the ending which I'll wait to talk about until next time.

I can't remember what I thought the second time, but I had read "The Land of Darkness" which is very Dantesque. I'd gotten an excellent article on this story by Robert and Vineta Colby (they wrote one of the two biographies beyond Calder's), "A Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age." They cite evidence to demonstrate that Oliphant read Dante closely: she wrote a volume called Makers of Florence and contributed to Foreign Classics for English Readers on Italian writers. I did see the influence of Dante this time. It may be that Oliphant set the story in France because she saw Catholicism as more visionary -- like Dante. I noticed she enjoyed writing English so that it sounds like a translation from the French at moments and has a French "feel." She did live in Italy for a time with her husband -- where he died miserably of TB; she returned to Rome and (terrible this) her 8 year old oldest daughter died suddenly in 4 days from "gastric fever." She was much attached to France and had indelible memories of Italy: she wrote biographies and many articles on French figures. In Merryn Williams's biography of Oliphant she says that Oliphant would have preferred to live in France but returned to England to give her sons an appropriate education. She did stay in Semur at one point, and her son, Cecco, at age 11 wrote about what they had seen.

The Colbys invoke a Spectator article that praised this story (which came out in a Christmas number -- not very cheery, is it?). The article compared it to Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" as showing a "wonderful mastery of the borderland of the natural and supernatural." They talk about the first person narratives basically describing them as Judy did, but they go on to suggest the various figures in the story stand for "archetypes of religious and intellectual positions rather than individualized personalities." They quote a section of DeQuincy's English Mail Coach which contains eerie descriptions of brooding midnight scenes, suggesting luminous presences. Closer still is Longfellow's Voices of the Night which pictures the city of Prague at midnight, where "a midnight host of spectres pale/Beleaguered the walls of Prague." There's one answer to Judy's question about where the title came from. Longfellow's poem has the idea that before the walls "With the wan moon overhead/There stood, as in an awful dream,/The army of the dead. An "old cathedale bell" rings out: "The white pavilion rose and fell/On the alarmed air." There's a refrain referring to how "an army of phantoms vast and wan/Beleaguer the human soul." But as opposed to Longfellow who has no intellectual backbone, Oliphant is investigating the emotional terrain of religious belief. They also cite Oliphant's work on Counte de Montealembert, a champion of religious and political liberty who wrote in French and whose book Oliphant translated. She wrote about Savonarola in a review and Lamennais (whom George Sand quoted in her Letters d'un Voyageur) who wrote about atheism.

I've mentioned the death of her daughter at age 8, and her husband in Rome. I have to add that one of her two beloved sons (in whom she invested everything of her heart, spirit, time, blood to educate and be with) died just before she began this story. Like her husband, he died of TB. The other son was already showing signs of having this dread disease. A third adopted son (a nephew) also had just died: of typhoid fever in India: a terrible blow. The story of the memory of Marie, the dead daughter of the Dupins is the only point of literal contact with this terrible history but the whole story -- and indeed all her supernatural tales came out of her intense craving to make contact with these dead people. She imagines what it's like in the supernatural world in "Old Lady Mary" and has "Old Lady Mary" intensely wanting to make contact with her niece; she wants to redeem what she didn't do in life; unlike Scrooge, this isn't quite possible. I could type out and quote letters of terrible loss, bitterness (against God), bewilderment that are quoted in just about all publications about Oliphant. When she wrote her Autobiography, the only family member left to her was on niece and her cousin, Annie (Mrs Harry Coghill) who published the Autobiography with a half-book filled with letters, mostly "business" ones with Blackwood -- all about her writing career and business life and very revealing. I'll just quote the end of the last paragraph and two single sentence paragraphs which close Oliphant's Autobiography:

I never went out but he [Cecco, the son who died second] was there to give me his arm. I seem to feel it now -- the dear, thin, but firm arm. In the last four years after Cyril [the son who died first] was taken from us, we were nearer and nearer. I can hear myself saying 'Cecco and I.' It was the constant phrase. but all through he was getting weaker: and I knew it, and tried not to know.

And now here I am all alone.

I cannot write any more.


Re: The Beleaguered City: Darkness (II)

This last time I read the novella (it's really a very short novel) I was intensely aware of the imagery of darkness. How many ways this woman somehow images variations on darkness, usually through suggesting a kind of luminous light at the edges of perception. There's so much of it that I don't know which passage to pick. Here's an early one:

Figure to yourself, a July day! There ought to have been a moon almost at the full; but no moon was visible, no stars -- nothing but a grey veil of clouds, growing darker and darker as the moments went on; such as I have heard are the days and nights in England, where the seafogs so often blot out the sky ... the darkness was such that we lost our way ... It cannot be denied that Semur is very badly lighted. We retain still the lanterns slung by cords across the streets which were once general in France ...

The darkness comes on slowly, and a little later we are told "it became a kind of thick twilight, no loigher than many a night." Much later (at the close of chapter 3): "The moonlight fell upon the water, white as silver where that line of darkness aly, shining, as if it tried, and tried in vain, to penetrate Semur ..."

The imagery of cold, of chill is common to ghost stories. The beating of the narrator's heart through the rhythm of the sentences also was arresting, e.g., when he realizes he is next to an alive not dead man: "I put out my hand, and felt him warm and breathing, and I shall never forget the ease that came into my heart. Its beating calmed. I was restored to myself."

Since the first and second readings, I've read several other of Oliphant's ghost stories, and want to mention particularly (as masterpieces) "The Open Door" and "The Library Window." These more than two other very fine ones, "Lady Mary" and the strange symbolic "Land of Darkness" (this one is literally like Dante) made me aware of an element or theme in these stories that I think may be part of what's at the heart of what makes them great: Oliphant both longs for and believes in and dreads a permeability between the world of the living and the world of death. (I used the word impermeable in my first posting when I should have typed permeable.) The vision of the "Open Door" derives from a young Scottish boy who goes out into the land about his father's house and there encounters a door which is open. There is nothing between the land of the living and the dead. The story behind this door and the happenings around it are peculiarly unnerving. Much quieter but having the same idea is "The Library Window." What happens is the window dissolves away, seems to be there and then not be there; it is an interface through which the dead and living can encounter one another. "Old Lady Mary" is about how a woman ghost tries intensely hard to effect what's happening in the world of the living; she cannot quite make enough contact to get her message across; she is though near the girl she wronged; and her presence is continually felt.

There are no stories of Oliphant going to consult spiritual mediums. She didn't need to; more, it was not half a game to her. It was real, and her problem was that not only did she long to touch, hear, see, be with and believe all her dead were about her, she dreaded this. What were they like?

Those essays I've read, and the one biography by the Colbys and half a biography by Merryn Williams (I'm half-way through), all agree that Oliphant was an "unorthodox Christian." She was brought up Scots presbyterian; she wrote and translated books by theologians who debated controversial ideas and described (hostilely but described) atheism and agnosticism. She seems to have been very attracted to the literal rituals of Catholicism; to me it seems obvious the praying to saints and notions of different realms would appeal to her imagination. She did review Renan's Life of Christ and was apparently very fair to it. This was after the death of her husband and young daughter but before the death of her 3 (there were in effect 3) sons. Williams writes that Oliphant concluded that Christianity cannot "'undertake to satisfy all questions,' but 'there is nothing else which makes any response at all out of the awful darkness in which, one time or another, every living soul loses some precious thing.' Agnosticism may appeal to 'the intellectual classes,' but not to ordinary people, because it offered them no hope."

I've tried to read some of Oliphant's realistic fiction. The critics, scholars and biographies all cite a number of strong or very good novels which are not at all in print. Williams says Salem Chapel one of her best known is not that good and writes (agreeing with Judy) that it's one of a number of novels by her which starts brilliantly and then falls off very badly. (This is not uncommon among women writers: it occurs in Charlotte Smith and Maria Edgeworth.) I did read two short ones of the Carlingford series (the ones that are in print from Virago): The Rector and The Doctor's Family. The second was pretty good; it did remind me of Austen only much harder. I once began Miss Majoribanks; it started off as good as anything I ever read by Eliot, Austen or Trollope. It made Trollope look fatuously sentimental about women. It reminded me of Trollope as the central story resembled that of Dr Thorne in some ways (an older father figure and his daughter). I stopped because I ran out of time or was tired at night, but I would recommend that one. Blackwood actually turned this one down as it was not sufficiently upbeat or hopeful for him. Still none of these or what I've read in quotations or descriptions of this realistic fiction comes near her ghost stories.

She is said to have written brilliantly in the biographical mode. Again the books are rare and expensive. Her criticism is excellent; she was well ahead of D. W. Harding on Austen. She wrote that her best fiction was The Beleaguered City and that her best work was in criticism and biography. She has a couple of 3 volume works on literature too (literature of the 19th century, literature of the 18th).

Well I've said enough to show how interested I am in her, how much I enjoy reading her work, how deeply congenial I find elements of her spirit. I just loved her _Autobiography_ and the letters her cousin printed with it.

Cheers to all,

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Margaret Oliphant

Just to say many thanks to Ellen for the information and thoughts about Margaret Oliphant, and to both Ellen and Fran for the speculations on Oliphant's religious views. She's a writer I find fascinating too - I haven't read all that much by her, as I said, but those works I have read leave me wanting more. Looking at Amazon, it seems as if not very much is in print, as with so many 19th-century writers, but I see her Autobiography was republished last year in a Broadview edition. 'Kirsteen' seems to be mentioned everywhere as one of her finest realistic Scottish novels, but I only saw one second-hand copy for sale, a 1960s hardback for nearly £20. 'Miss Marjoribanks' and 'Hester' are available in recent paperbacks and my library has them, so I will probably be able to read these two when I get time.

Yesterday I borrowed from my local library a massive book called 'A History of Scottish Women's Writing', edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, which includes a long essay on Oliphant by Merryn Williams. I haven't read this piece properly yet, but, having a quick skim, noticed this comment from the Autobiography which Williams picks out:

"I have been tempted to begin writing by George Eliot's life... I wonder if I am a little envious of her?... How I have been handicapped in life! Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of?"

I don't know how fair this "mental greenhouse" is to Eliot - she did have the companionship and mutual support of her life with Lewes, and it sounds from this as if Oliphant longed for the same, as she coped with all the bereavements Ellen described.

This comment also suggests the pressure Oliphant was under to keep on writing, churning out more and more to pay the bills. I did find a website with a list of all her books, which was quite astonishing to look at because of the sheer length - all that work. I'll see if I can find the link again.

Williams ends her essay with a section about the supernatural stories, including 'A Beleaguered City'.I was especially interested by this passage in view of the discussion we've had about Oliphant's religious views:

"The first thing to note is that, although these stories were popular with religious readers, they are not pious. Up to the age of about twenty-five she had been an ardent Free Presbyterian; her teenage years were dominated by the Disruption of 1843. She continued to call herself a believer throughout her life. But she outgrew the rigid dogmas in which she had been raised, and after the death of her beloved daughter in 1864 she found it very hard to accept the goodness, if not the existence, of God. She was haunted by the problem of why so many people die before their time, especially children. She made the narrator of 'A Beleaguered City' a sceptic because she was more attracted to this position than she would admit. So although these stories are concerned with what happens to the human personality after death, they raise more questions than they answer."

I recently came across Oliphant in another context while re- reading 'Jude the Obscure'. She was one of the most violent critics of this novel, describing it as obscene and disgusting - I read a very angry, ranting passage by her in a collection of Hardy criticism. Of course, she was very old by that time, and must have found his different style hard to take, but it is sad to see one great writer taking against another so strongly.

All the best,

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Margaret Oliphant

I can't now find the site with the full list of Margaret Oliphant's works, but have discovered that 'Kirsteen' is available as an etext, as are a few other books apart from 'A Beleaguered City'. They are listed with links at this site - scroll down to her name if you want to take a look:

All the best,

Date: Mon, 24 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] List of Margaret Oliphant's works

My last one for now, I promise, but I've finally tracked down the site which has an enormous list of Oliphant's works. The size of the list alone is moving to look at, and gives a feeling of just how hard her life must have been.

Here's the link:


To Trollope-l

November 29, 2003

Re: Oliphant, Beleaguered City, Chs 6-10: Uncanny yet at home

Chapter 6 is told by M. LeMaire; Chapter 7 is a "supplement" by M. de Bois-Sombre; Chapter 8, an "extract from the narrative of Dupin's wife, Madame Dupion de la Clairière (née De Champfleurie). Then we get Dupin's mother or Chapter 9, the "narrative of Madame Veuve Dupin (née Lepelletier); the book is concluded by Chapter 10, where "M. Le Maire concludes his record." Among the interests of this book is the variety of voices and switching from subjectivity to subjectivity. It's very common in ghost stories particularly to have a first-person narrative, and this fragmentary kind of structuring is also found again and again. The knotting up with Chapter numbers and headings does not change the sense we get of pieces of a puzzle put before us where the puzzle's outline (or the whole picture) remains unclear.

In Chapter 6 the mayor and the curate re-enter the haunted city. He begins with a contrast between the curate's closeness to death and his belief in an afterlife which "must necessarily give him courage." He tells us he has "not" made up his mind upon these subjects. We then get a long powerful evocation of two living men walking among the dead -- I feel this is so much more self-conscious and strange, eerie, than any section of Dante's great epic which Oliphant has in mind (she imitated Dante in her "Land of Darkness," another tale of the seen and unseen). There is the emphasis on a chill, the night, the mist, all dark, all still, but all filled with presences which are mostly evoked by the mayor's own emotional responsiveness to this violation of nature's order. Edith Wharton calls writers of ghost stories, "ghost- feelers" or "ghost-seers." Oliphant is a ghost-feeler; the intrusions are gradually stronger and stronger, very insistent, not malevolent or benevolent but rather coming of a deep need and a malaise. She bridges life and death and is terrified of the hunger of the presences she feels around her:

"Although still I heard the beating of my own pulses loudly working in my ears, yet it was less terrible than at first ..."

They stand afraid to move further; then all is not there, so the curate says "We are ambassadors in vain," and this provokes the ricochet:

"What was it that followed? My teeth chattered. I could not hear. It was as if 'in vain! 'in vain' came back from echoes, more and more distant from every opening. They breathed all around us, then were still, then returned louder from beyond the river ... [What river? never mind].

They clutch one another and move forward. Again and again there's an emphasis on the narrator's emotional intensity:

"My brain and my heart were one throb. They plunged and beat so wildly that I could scarcely have heard any other sound. In this respect I think he was more calm. There was on his face that look of intense listening which strains the very soul ..."

The places they move into include Dupin's house, where there is evidence the daughter was there; the union of the men grows stronger as they move on together. Interestingly Oliphant keeps up the scepticism and sometimes from the curate: "'Martin Dupin, he said suddenly, 'it is enough. We are frightening ourselves with shadows." The curate also cries out in bitterness ("'Is it delusion?'") just before they go into the church; they don't say what they meant to say, but the mayor's childhood comes back to him; he kneels, weeps, and is next to the curate on the altar, and suddenly the bells ring out wildly, stronger and stronger, and then as they leave slowly die away. They do hear an impatient voice from the hospital of St Jean.

M de Bois-Sombre is outside the city, a somewhat calmer descriptive and self-reflective narrative follows where he worries what to do about his soldiers, what is happening to the others outside the city, and finally draws near the city to see the mayor's wife. Her narrative matches his: what she was doing to help the women outside the city; how she tried to control and bear with the women and children, feed them, how they didn't listen to her, and many frustrated self-berating thoughts about her husband. Then what she too saw outside the city. M. Lecamus tells of his encounter; he did not see his beloved, but he felt her:

"'We were one; we had no need to speak. What is speaking or hearing when heart wells into heart? ... I put out my hand to him; I could not say a word. How was it possible that she could go away again, and leave him so feeble, so worn, alone?"

To her as she walks among the people sleeping in the grass comes a dream of a child, and she cries out; she had heard her daughter's voice. Ther eis a paragraph of wild eager vibrant grasping, desperate as the two grapple together:

He had caught my wrist with his worn hand. "Listen! he said; his voice fell to a whisper; a light broke over his face. 'Listen! he cried; 'they are coming.' While he thus grasped my wrist, holding up his weak and wavering body in that strained attitude, the moments passed very slowly. I was afraid ofhim, of his worn face and thin hands, and the wild eagerness about him."

She is ashamed, and then they too hear the bells. The scene becomes more overwrought between the two of them while gradually he is also simply dying of an excess of energetic desire; she becomes exhausted and hears someone calling her as a sister, "Adiueu ma soeur. Ma soeur!_ (Effective scattered uses of French are found throughout the story; the English is also written in syntax to suggest French. But Madame Dupin has no sister and she weeps and wrings her hands, "'Not thee, not thee, Marie! But after that I knew no more."

The mayor's mother comes in now as a kind of slow calmer as we return back to a tonic norm. She begins with her difficulties in writing nothing but the whole truth; her pride in her son, goes on to provide the usual conventional theological explanations and "cause" of all this ("the outrage done upon the good sisters of St Jean by the administration"); this is God exhibiting himself, but as the narrative progresses to the return to the city, the coming of the sunlight, we still move slowly over the disturbing experiences she sees, but mostly does not herself experience except as "working in her heart" for those close to her.

Merryn Williams says one of the strongest parts of the tale is the close. The people return to their homes but they are not transformed forever. The past and memory of what has occurred passes away, and they are just as they were. Indeed (as in "The Open Door"), unscrupulous people begin to use these happenings to foment a recurrence of superstitution which Dupin suggests differs little from religious belief. One man is encouraged to elaborate a silly story about a vision; this comic imitation is wonderfully salutary. Of course the mayor is one of the "chief of the denounced persons" from this vision. Of course the women who run the hospital now have their way, but Dupin is most annoyed because what then have the people learned? For that matter he's still there making "an obstinate stand for principle" (a man after my own heart is M. Dupin). The curate then tells him, what does it matter if we are now getting lies and delusions and base cheats:

"'Dear friend,' he said, 'compose thyself. Have you never discovered yet how strong is self-delusion? There will be no lying of whcih they are aware."

Think of the great stimulus to the imagination we have here.

A little coda of a dialogue of our chief friends in the tale (Bois-Sombre, the mother, the wife) and we end once again quietly, somberly looking at Mr. LeCamus's tomb. The mayor's wife tells him M. Lecamus will tell Marie "what use I made of her olive leaves."

It's an uncanny story; as the Colbys says, "a fable for the Victorian age, particularly relevant to its doubting yet religious milieu. There is a home-yness, an at home feeling of a witty woman at its edges which comes out strongly at its end. But then "Was it a dream? I would not give that dream for years of waking life ..."


Re: Oliphant's life & works: Merryn Williams, the Colbys

Here's a just a bit more that Williams brings out about Oliphant. Earlier this week I suggested how she contextualizes Oliphant's harsh review of Hardy which she points out is often remembered when most everything else about Oliphant is forgotten. I left out how Williams also brings out how it was simple generosity and a desire to see her sons and nephews and nieces enjoy life that led her to encourage them not to throw their lives away in governessing or vocational/business work. She quotes some warmly affectionate letters from Oliphant to her nieces late in life where she says to them there is no need for you to spend this year doing X or Y which is so unpleasant and will get you so little money when I make enough for us all to travel while I write. This is another aspect of Oliphant's choice of life and life with these young adults is not sufficiently brought out.

Williams does differ from the Colbys, Oliphant's other major biographers, about which are the best Oliphants. For Williams the novels are Kirsteen, Hester, Miss Majoribanks, The Ladies Lindores, Old Mr Tregold and The Marriage of Elinor. Williams sees Oliphant as having a particular rich period towards the end of her life and names a couple of realistic stories she says are as fine as the ghost ones: "A Widow's Tale," "Mr Sandford". This latter is about an aging painter whose family are dependent on him, whose work is now out of style, and who comes to the conclusion the best thing for him would be to do would be to die. His sons would get a small income, nothing to crush their lives. When "he is injured in a fatal accident, perhaps because he has not tried to save himself, his only feeling is of overwhelming relief." Williams agrees with the Colbys and others that Margaret's literary criticism and biography are often better than her fiction, but Williams does not go into said non-fiction at length. The Colbys do.

The Colbys like the ghost stories much better than Williams. They praise the unfinished autobiography much more strongly. They add to the fine novels, Phoebe Junior, A Son of the Soil, The Curate in Charge. They tend to like Oliphant's earlier Scots stories ("A Quiet Heart"), and the biographies, Edward Irving. They also quote Oliphant to great effect: "Poor prince! What a bore his life must have been to him" (on Prince Albert).

In truth Oliphant wrote an enormous amount, probably because she enjoyed being alive while she was writing. She also loved to travel and live what is called well.


Date: Sun, 30 Nov 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Oliphant's 'A Beleaguered City': Ambassadors in vain

Hi all,

When I started reading 'A Beleaguered City', I must admit I was expecting the ghosts to be seen - but they remain unseen, only felt, apart from brief glimpses, mainly by the characters who do not tell their experiences. The only definite vision that sticks out is LeCamus seeing Dupin's father, who quickly vanishes again and never gives a message.

Merryn Williams writes in the introduction to the Canongate edition: "The quality of the narrative owes a great deal to Oliphant's own fervent wish to believe that the dead survive in some way, and have a role and a purpose."

I can see the tale is suffused with this intense yearning to see the dead again - but the whole story shows it is impossible. When the dead are in the city, the living are shut outside and become ghosts themselves - then, when the curate and the mayor go back inside, they can't see anyone and even wonder if they are imagining the whole thing. I was especially struck by a line Ellen quoted in her posting:

the curate says "We are ambassadors in vain"

The dead who return are to a large extent ambassadors in vain, too. They return because of love, but they can't bridge the gap and touch their loved ones, just as Old Lady Mary finds in another of Oliphant's stories. The only real reunion comes through LeCamus's death - for him the visit is not in vain, because it holds out the hope of his reunion with his wife. It's quite striking that at the end of the story the last image is the grave - back to the reality of the distance between the living and the dead.

I agree with Ellen that there's a lot of wit in the story - I liked the way Oliphant shows the society quickly returning to normal, with the various factions adapting what has happened to suit their own purposes. There's no magical transfiguration here. I got the Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and RA Gilbert, out of my local library, and read the introduction today - there is no Oliphant story included, and they say in the introduction that this is because her stories are too long for their purposes, although excellent. They describe her as "prolix", which I thought was a bit dismissive. However, reading this, it struck me that it must be harder to keep up that ghostly atmosphere for a story as long as 'A Beleaguered City' than for a shorter tale. I think Oliphant pulls this off so brilliantly partly through the way that much of the story is realistic, with the ghosts disappearing, then flashing back almost into sight, like those red letters which can only be glimpsed for a moment. The intense ghostly atmosphere doesn't have to be kept up for long periods. I think the only other ghost story of this sort of length which I've read is Henry James's 'The Turn of the Screw', which is deeply ambiguous. I don't feel there is the same ambiguity in 'A Beleaguered City' - they are all aware of the ghosts, rather than it being just one person who tells the story. The choice of multiple narrators gives the tale an objective reality.

Thanks to Ellen for the information about Oliphant biographies and other novels and stories. I have a copy of 'Phoebe Junior' which I haven't read yet, so am interested to hear that this is said to be one of her best realistic novels. I also see that there is a collection of her realistic short stories, entitled 'The Doctor's Family', again edited by Merryn Williams, which is available cheaply second-hand although it is not in print. I was already interested in Oliphant,and am even more so after hearing more about the Williams biography, which is also out of print. (Sometimes I think all the good books are out of print!)

All the best,

Re: Oliphant's Beleagued City: To See or Not To See

One of the best books on ghost stories from the technical standpoint I've ever read is Paul Penzoldt (The Supernatural in Fiction); like Jack Sullivan (Elegant Nightmares) and M. R. James, he argues that the structure of the ghost story differs radically from the structure of most short fiction. Its climax (they all agree) is the emergence of the ghost, vision or presence or sudden repeatedly crazed scene which is a vision. Penzoldt is the only one to go on to discuss the "problem" of whether a story is stronger if this ghostly climax is really seen or only felt. This is a real dispute. I remember that Dickens made Gaskell alter her "The Old Nurse's Story" so that the ghost would be seen; he told her the common reader would not react as strongly to her ghost story unless the ghost were seen. In this particular story Gaskell had wanted the ghost to remain felt rather than seen. In that Oxford Book Judy quoted there is the line by Wharton about "ghost-feelers" and "ghost-seers": Wharton aligns herself with the "feelers" and apparently herself felt a story was stronger when the vision was rather a presence felt and at the most only suggestively glimpsed.

Ghost stories to be effective take real aesthetic control and ability. So too films: when I have screened Mary Reilly inevitably the scene where the decision was made to have Hyde turn back into Jekyll before our eyes elicits laughter from at least one student who views it as corny or absurd or over-the-top. Yet the power of the film adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black comes from seeing the woman in black. Her face is terrible (terrifying, ghastly, filled with frightening endless hatred like I've never seen anywhere before or since).

Oliphant is among the feelers. As I recall "The Open Door" does not give us an explicitly seen ghost and "The Library Window" has a ghost which is deniable. "Old Lady Mary" is different because we are seeing the living from the point of view of the ghost; still I suppose we don't see her as the living characters don't see her. "The Land of Darkness" is a Dante-like story so the ghosts are seen, but they are very shadowy, very like the felt visions in Beleaguered City.

don't think women ghost story writers are more inclined to be feelers than men but I haven't read enough women in a conscious way to compare them to men. We might think about this as we go through these stories. Looking back at the ghost stories we read by women on Trollope-l, four have no visible ghost only the presence (which can be murderous): Braddon's "The Shadow in the Corner" is ambiguous enough to be a suicide; Wharton's "Afterwards" has a report of a ghost, not the vision directly; Edwards's "he Phantom Coach" also has a report and shadows, not a direct vision. But Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Tale" (from Dickens's pressure) and Freeman's "Lost Ghost" do show us the ghost directly. My feeling and memory tells me the stories where the ghost makes a direct appearance are more violent than the stories of felt presence, less psychologically nuanced and inward, except that this is not true for "Horla" (De Maupassant -- mentioned by Dagny on her FrenchLit list) nor any of Bierce's. The first is violent and the ghost not seen; the latter has lots of seen violent ghosts and is very nuanced and inward.

Again women tend to write more terror and less horror fiction, more ghost and not vampire fiction, but one would really have to do a survey.

There is a good book on women's ghost fiction: Eugenia Delamotte's Perils of the Night. Guess what? It's out of print. We don't have it at the GMU library (it's very expensive too), but I did put in for an interlibrary loan so if it comes in time I'll see what Delamotte says. It is a much praised book. It's a study of 19th century gothic fiction by women from a feminist and psychoanalytic point of view. The emphasis is English ghost stories.

Returning to the idea that the climax of a ghost story is the vision or presence of the ghost, this can explain the mockery and dismissal of Radcliffe's great Udolpho The climax really is when at the end of hundreds of pages we look behind the picture. She neither gives us a vision or a presence. She suddenly explains away the skeleton and body. The deflation is dismaying and makes the reader feel intensely cheated after all this time. It's probably the worst moment in Radcliffe. And it's the one endlessly cited. She just didn't have the nerve to give us a presence of rotting chill horror or a vision of a truly tortured woman now a dead revenant. But shattered crying from the depths of her heart. That she did give us.


Date: Wed, 03 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Oliphant's Beleaguered City: Oliphant's Wish for Death

In interchanging emails with someone offlist about the above novella, I began to see that we hadn't mentioned something we ought to have that is central to this story: a death wish. Oliphant longs intensely to die, and yet dreads death. She wants to enter the world of the dead and yet finds it literally terrifying, and in the story she struggles against her desire to be ice, to be cold, to live in the shadows and the grave.

It's a story directly expressing what psychoanalysis calls the impulse to thanatos.

It throws light on her other stories since the material in these only comes out at the climax -- at the open door. Or it's expressed very indirectly as in the desire to lunge into the library window which is kept very much at bay. It's merely staring at the open grave as it were.



Re: Margaret Oliphant: A photo/life patterns outside the "norm"

Well we have a new picture on our site -- and it's very good:

Just look at the expression on Oliphant's face. In a posting today Fran said she's getting a little tired of "concentrated sado-masochism:" the expression on Oliphant's face is an intense and alert one of steely sardonic grit. Were she alive and some 30 years younger, she'd perhaps steal some roles from Cate Blanchett. The biographers and critics I've read demonstrate that strong women are among the central focuses of Oliphant's realistic fiction: these stories repeatedly show how such a woman is preyed upon by weak men, be they husbands, brothers, or sons.

Judy has been talking about what a hard life Oliphant must've had. She did write an enormous amount of texts -- and she did (apparently) write many inferior potboiling novels. They paid. Alas, when people come to study her today, they go first to her novels, and chances are they will not be among her fine ones. A little more life history is needed here: at age 16 she escaped from her family and local milieu in Scotland to go live in London: from one novel (many are also autobiographical) we apparently see that the trip was an escape. Or at least meant to be so. She wrote her first stories and two novels were published. But the money was eaten up by her brother, Willy. Willy was the first of a number of men who spent their life supported by Oliphant. He never manged to support himself by his art or anything else, and became an alcoholic, and went to live in Rome. One story tells how someone in the family would occasionally take his clothes from him to keep him in the house so he couldn't go out and spend yet more. Her marriage to her husband was ended swiftly by his death in Rome, but his business as a craftsman wasn't getting anywhere and she had begun to be the mainstay of the family before he died. Neither of her sons ever became independent; her nephew who died of typhoid fever was beginning to carve out a career when he died, but up to then it had been she who supported him. She supported another brother and his family when he emotionally and economically collapsed at the death of his wife. The cousin, Annie Walker, who published her autobiography and the first edition of her letters, lived with her for a long time -- Annie did marry a man much older than she; he was wealthy -- much to Oliphant's surprize.

It must be said that a pattern like this begins to look like more than chance. So many to end up on her. I've read the Colbys biography and am now almost finished with Merryn Williams. The Colbys present Oliphant as simply endlessly put upon, meaning intensely to get these people off her back and not managing it. The Colbys are more old-fashioned and when they talk about how Oliphants novels, particularly those written later in life expose her sons relentlessly as weak, often spiteful and ungrateful, difficult to get along with, as embarrassing and distressing and hope that her sons never read them, but suppose the sons did read them so they also wonder aloud what the sons thought if they did read some. Williams seems to see a little farther when she tells us that Oliphant was urged not to send her sons simply to Oxford but to give them a profession and vocation, but refused: she wanted them to live gentlemen's lives, but she also regularly undermined their need to find support. The story is the same with her nieces: there were teaching jobs, but she didn''t educate them to teach but to draw and she encouraged them to wait around to find husbands -- all the while complaining and having very ambivalent feelings about them too. There is a type of personality which is dominant and strong which likes to have people dependent on it and unconsciously sets up situations which end up this way.

I wonder if she didn't want to have an excuse to write endlessly, to have to travel and do research ceaselessly. She did have the older ideal of a woman as daughter/wife/mother first and foremost and while later in life she did write on behalf of women's rights and bitterly about how men exploited and despised women, she remained resolutely opposed to feminism which presented women's careers as something they had a right to, to which they had as much need as men. Once her husband was dead there was never any question but that she had to spend her existence among books. She never showed any disposition to marry again. There is apparently good evidence in her novels that although the marriage was a love match, she soon grew disappointed and dismayed with said husband. He was not her equal in gifts of character or intelligence or talent.

Her second son, Cecco (named Francis) did live until his mid-30s. He did have real gifts, literary and artistic. Towards the end of his life he did manage to hold onto a part-time job -- which she got for him by networking. But then that was basically the only way to get a job except if you took a civil service examination and the jobs offered up that way were the 9-5 5 day a week tied-to-your desk type that takes all other endeavour away. Even then networking was (and still is) often necessary. Trollope got his job in the post office through his mother's efforts. Her first son did get a second in Oxford but that wasn't good enough to sell; Cecco got something like a fourth (very bad), but he really did turn out to love scholarship and began to write scholarly articles in his later 20s. She seems to have gotten great satisfaction out of a 3 volume study of Victorian literature she produced with him. Neither son ever showed any disposition to have a girlfriend. Neither did drink excessively or gamble; both liked to be with and around her.

Her stories (again according to the critics and biographers and from the two and one-half novels I've read) remind me of those of Madame de Genlis, Maria Edgeworth, what's said of Colette in some phases, and Isak Dinesen: she doesn't much believe in erotic love; when it exists it's short-lived; she founds the happiness of her heroines in their relationships with their children. She has many explicit statements (quoted from her novels) making fun of novels where love becomes the foundation of the women's happiness, and (rightly) ridicules sentimental endings and overwrought long sequences of misery where the woman's whole life cannot find any meaning but in that one great moment of orgasm (or its dramatization in censored equivalents and rituals).

Clearly there is something going on here in Oliphant's and her son's psyches which modern norms and stereotypes get in the way of critics and biographers doing justice to. The world demands that men make a lot of money and marry or they're "failures." Why should this be? No one is particularly needed this way; the world will be peopled and work go on without individuals not disposed to it; most work for money because they have to. The pattern here is not unlike Fanny Trollope and her older son, Thomas (who was however stronger and more independent than Oliphant's sons and made career for himself, though not especially respectable when it came to antiques-dealing); it reminds me of George Sand and her older son who married a woman happy to live in Sand's circle at home with her. Oliphant's problem was (as she wrote bitterly again) that she couldn't command the sums of a George Eliot and so couldn't get out of the trap of writing pap and the pap then kept her from making big sums. Sutherland has a book about how hard it was in the 19th century to break out of this trap for men too. Oliphant also complains she was never considered for an editor's job which would have brought in a regular income. She says they went to men. If you look you will discover that those women who became editors were often led to that through their familial/sexual connections with men. Oliphant had no males to turn to or family which had made it this way. So she nagged her sons and they would get back on occasion. All three were unable to throw off the stereotype of how they should be spending their lives. Still she spent big (the biographers partly criticize her for this) and gave them and herself much pleasure and beauty in their existence.

The pattern of the woman/mother type who builds a life with unmarried daughters also recurs continually and is still not done justice to. My feeling is the motives for the different patterns differ but since the patterns are not written about much as legitimate (not merely holding patterns or _faute de mieux_) we have little evidence to produce generalizations. I see it in Christine de Pizan and her daughter -- though alas she had to put her daughter in a convent because there was not money enough to support them as a pair.

Williams agrees that The Beleaguered City is masterly, but interestingly unlike the Colbys and another couple of critics I've read, is not particularly enamoured of it. After all, many readers will take away silly pious inferences from it; like her other ghost stories, it really doesn't move into real women's lives with any depth and its moral is not sociologically applicable to our tangible and intangible probable existences. (One problem in teaching ghost stories to students in college is you inevitably get them suddenly admitting how they "half-believe" in ghosts and if you don't control that you will soon get someone getting up and giving some religious "testimony.")

TheBeleaguered City seems to me a metaphysical, a psychological projection of grief, loss, despair, gothic in its pessimistic implications about the nature of existence, but would agree it's not going to help women or speak to women particularly except in the margins -- Dupin's acknowledgement that women have it hard because they have no power is not central to the story. "The Library Window" does delve a young girl's sexuality at bit, but again it's not central to what fuels the story.

I hope Judy does read Kristeen or Hester and reports back. I have in my house some old volumes of Oliphant's criticism. I've always wanted to read more in them. I'll try some in the evening tonight or later this week. I got her much praised 3 volume Literary History of England (she goes from the early 18th to middle 19th century in it) inexpensively when the George Mason library sale (twice a year) turned up a copy which had been de-accessed. I didn't know that Kirsteen or Hester was now in print.

I recommend both the Colby book and Williams. Together they give a balanced perspective. Both have pages of listed books and articles that Oliphant wrote. I've seen a figure of 125 books; that includes her very able non-fiction (biography); it does not include her articles and short stories of which she produced many many.

Do have a look at her photo. Remember Oliphant lives well into the era of photography. There is a photo of her when a young woman; she looks thin, has little expression on her face that's readable but she does look slightly unaggressive, sort of quiet. It seems to have been taken after she married but before she began to see what life and she was all about.

We could someday try one of her better novels as a group read. Three are now in print: Miss Majoribanks, which is easy to get being one of the Carlingford novels (modelled on Trollope's), and Kristeen and Hester. We could also read her Autobiography and letters together either in the edition prepared by her cousin, Annie (Mrs Harry Coghill) or the Broadview Press edition. The older edition was reprinted by Leicester University Press in 1974 with an introduction by Q. D. Leavis.

Cheers to all,

To Trollope-l

Re: More on Oliphant's Miss Majoribanks and 'The Beleaguered City'

January 7, 2004

There has been an interesting thread on Miss Marjoribanks on Victoria this morning. Ellen Jordan quoted a letter from one of Blackwood's correspondents in which the writer argued that Miss Marjoribanks feels wholly unlike the other novels by Oliphant that the writer has read. The central female is a type with whom Oliphant is 'wholly out of sympathy'. There is such a 'presence' in a text as an authorial personality; probably our enjoyment of texts comes from our ability to sense this presence and feel ourselves in contact with a congenial friend. When we don't like a text, it is often the result of not liking the 'authorial personality' we feel implicit in it everywhere.

What's interesting here is the connection to Austen's Emma: there too we have a central character who feels to be a type Austen is in her other novels 'out of sympathy' with. I have read about half-way through Miss Majoribanks and gave it up; now I realise that there is a similar satiric stance going on in the two novels. Blackwood's correspondent cites Miss Margaret Maitland, a lovely Scots story, which has a heroine who is a softened version of the type Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot, and Fanny Price belong to. Really very like Jane Bennet brought to the fore. Oliphant was an admirer of Austen; wrote a remarkably perceptive critical essay on her; her novels are sometimes called "Austen-like" (and she does have characters with exactly the same names and similar relationships -- a Miss Woodhouse for example); _Miss Marjoribanks_ is one of the Virago press publications -- which by-the-bye are talked about in Deirdre Lynch's Janeites, a recent remarkably interesting volume of literary-critical, historical, cultural essays as much on the readers of Austen-like books as on Austen herself.

A long time ago someone on Austen-l asked me how one novel explicates another -- or sheds light on it. In the same way as a critical essay: they are voices in a conversation; the Virago books studied as a group contextualise and explicate what Austen was doing in ways she might herself have recognized and enjoyed. We have on earlier occasions -- or at least a few people on this list have -- made suggestions for group reads taken from these Virago press books -- there are a slew of such women's novels written during the 19th century which are available because of Virago's efforts.

Judy also mentioned that 'The Beleaguered City' was cited on Victoria as a masterpiece of fiction. Someone who wanted to understand something of the 'mentalités' of the Victorian period which are so part of the thinking or 'feel' of many people that they rarely make it explicit asked for books she should read. We should remember that ghost stories as an art form emerged in the Victorian period, and were very very popular towards the end of it -- precisely at that time that the first real dissolution of religious faith had begun from the increasing presence and respect science was obtaining -- as well as its practical results. Ghost stories are ways of responding to this new disturbance; they are a counter-reaction of a milieu. I did write about 'The Beleaguered City' on this list and Victoria after I read the novella for the first time last year I was so stirred by it.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a posting I wrote to Trollope-l when I first read the story. I have revised it somewhat in the light of what I've read and thought since:

In brief: it is the story of the citizens of a town who are driven outside their walls when their dead invade their city and push them out. The prelude tells of several incidents which show people no longer really believe in another world, or, at least don't act as if they do, incidents in which a few people explicitly argue that the new God is Money. The technique recalls that of Wilkie Collins in that it is a series of narratives told by different people who are our reporters, each of whom experienced the incident differently given their character, perspective, tasks, sex, circumstances. The "feel" of the story reminded me of Camus's The Plague: the central narrator is the Mayor, a man who prides himself on his rationality. As we go deeper into the narratives, we find ourselves reading a visionary all the town always despised; the mayor's wife, a deeply emotional woman. The key incident for many in the town is they are made to feel the presence of some beloved person who has died.

Although summertime, the natural world suddenly becomes wintry, the days short and bleak, the sky one in which we expect snow. The citizens are terrified by 'nothing' -- meaning there is nothing there except the sun is not shining, and the light of the sky is suddenly colourless, dead. It's like they are in some void. At the same time a deep sense of the uncanny inhabits the place; they 'feel' that thousands of dead people who they once knew are now inhabiting their houses, streets, intimate spaces. Yet no one speaks of it. This is just the way people often are: they don't talk about what they fear others will disapprove of, what they cannot face or have not 'concrete' proof is true yet believe in. The narrator who is the visionary writes a piece which is very like Oliphant's "The Open Door" (which Joan mentioned and I have taught a number of times): somehow precisely yet vaguely this narrator shows us himself feeling he is making love to his beloved but now dead wife. The Mayor's wife sees a dead daughter's face. Other people's dead leave curious tokens, ring bells, make uncanny noises.

There is an atmosphere of suspended awe which is compelling -- this is very like Oliphant's 'Land of Darkness' but where that is visionary and not realistic, this story is filled with realistic details like the novels we read by Trollope. There are numbers of allusions to Dante's _Commedia_ in 'The Land of Darkness' so it's probable that 'The Beleaguered City' is also influenced by this earlier Italian visionary poem.

Vineta and Robert Colby wrote the one more popular recent biography of Oliphant: The Equivocal Virtue. They also have an essay just on 'The Beleaguered City' whose theme is caught in its title: 'A Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age", Nineteenth Century Fiction (March 1962), pp. 283-301.

I hope we can have other subgroups which take us away from realistic stable and much respected fictions like the ones Trollope wrote: the Victorian period also saw the invention of the detective story, the tale of horror; it perfected the tale of terror. There is Scots literature of which Sir Walter and Robert Louis Stevenson are past masters. We should not forget that even Dracula is part of our terriain: a book written by an Anglo- Irish man -- very much in the vein of Sheridan Le Fanu whose Uncle Silas we read on this list and who wrote some of the best ghost stories ever. He and Trollope knew one another; Anthony liked 19th century Irish literature. People should feel free to start groups of either the Virago or other non-realistic types like we have just had. We did talk of historical novels earlier this year and I hope we go back to that as a subgroup too.

NB: Blackwood was a good friend to both Anthony Trollope and Margaret Oliphant too. He published both their work and the letters of both pairs of people are worth reading.

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

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