Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow – Mrs Oliphant

Claire and Verity are hosting their third Persephone reading extravaganza (on the off chance that this is news do go and have a look; there are a whole lot of competitions going on to win books and although it seems wrong to have a favourite Verity’s picture test is especially brilliant.) I normally stand back in a state of mild admiration for people who join in; I was going to say challenges but on reflection join in covers it, it’s not my strongest point. This kind of celebration though works even for people like me. I like Persephone books, I have unread Persephone books, why not read some Persephone books...

The Mystery of Blencarrow’ by Mrs Oliphant (I like the formal titles that Persephone grace their authors with) was a purchase from my last visit to the shop back in November, it’s been the next book I’ll read almost ever since. I loved ‘Miss Marjoriebanks’ but despite having turned up a few more Carlingford chronicles since I’ve got no further than an abortive attempt with ‘Hester’ when it comes to reading Oliphant. Still a pair of novellas can hold no terrors about lapsing concentration ‘The Mystery of Blencarrow’ is paired with ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond’ and both have reignited my passion for the hard working and prolific Mrs Oliphant.

Both stories deal with the breakdown of relationships and the lack of options for a woman in an unsatisfactory marriage before divorce became possible. Mrs Blencarrow’s mystery is not much of a surprise – a widow still in the prime of her life marries in haste only to repent at leisure. For good enough reasons she keeps the fact of her marriage a secret but these things have a habit of catching up with you and it doesn’t look good for the poor woman. What Oliphant makes very clear is the potential cost of Mrs Blencarrow’s mistake. Marrying beneath her station means not just a loss of status but the loss of her children. Legally she is the property of her husband and expected to obey him in all matters – his interests must come first. Her children however seem to belong to her late husband’s estate to be cared for in the same way that the land is, she is not their sole guardian and it’s entirely within the power of her brothers to remove them from her if they should judge it appropriate.

Caught between a husband who neither loves nor needs his wife and children who adore and depend upon their mother what is Mrs Blencarrow to do, where does her true duty lie? I think I’m making this sound more melodramatic than it is – what really struck me was how matter of fact it all was and how terrifyingly limited a woman’s life could be by convention.

Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond” deals with a couple just past their prime. A prosperous, well liked couple, whose eldest children are just entering adulthood whilst the youngest are still in the nursery – a good wife who interests herself in her husband’s comforts, a kind and loving father who’s lived an honest life until he quietly disappears. Of the two I found this the more affecting tale. The wife in this case realises that she doesn’t really want her husband back and so forgives gross selfishness on his part. Quiet separation may sound respectable enough but it seems to me that being neither wife nor widow isn’t much of a position to find yourself in. The husband of the piece puts himself in the way of fairly thorough reprisals which his wife declines to take – but had she chosen to do so I imagine the scandal would be worse than the chosen course of do nothing, say nothing.

Mrs Oliphant seems calm enough about the fate of her heroines but they made my inner feminist roar; this is why we needed the vote and a voice. I’m glad I’ve finally read this book it’s been thoroughly provoking which was timely, it also fits beautifully into the Persephone tradition of confounding my expectations – for every happy, cosy, read there seems to be something a little darker. This book is sending me to bed happy that my life has more choices than boundaries.


  1. Verity's picture test is particularly brilliant indeed!

    I have just reviewed this same title and you did it so much more eloquently than I did. It also made my inner feminist roar.

  2. Hah, I've just been commenting on your post as well - I really liked this book - Mrs Blencarrow was all the things I wanted Lady Rose/ Mrs Memmary to be.

    I don't believe I did anything more eloquently than you - but I'm always a bit disappointed with myself when I read back what I've written, it never sounds quite as it did in my head (where I'm always very witty and to the point)!

  3. Thanks for the review. I have this on the tbr shelves & I will get to it soon.

  4. Great review! I enjoyed these two novellas so much as well. I thought both focused on what a terrible personal cost women sometimes have to pay to keep a family together. Mrs Oliphant makes marriage sound such a struggle doesn't she? I presume it was for many Victorian women especially when you had no real freedom to get out of it.

  5. This is the second review I have read on this book. Definitely one to read now I think, perhaps when I feel less like roaring in regards to the way women were limited. I am currently going through a similar position at work at the moment!

  6. Thank you! I love my picture competition too :)

  7. Thanks for the great review! This sounds like it will be an interesting and thought-provoking read.

  8. I have this on my bokshelf and I'm itching to read it! Thanks for the review.

  9. Josbookjourney -sorry to hear about your work situation, I hope you get a favourable resolution soon.

    Rambling Fancy - it did make me think that divorce being socially acceptable is a good thing. The husband in 'Queen Eleanor...' was so unbeliavably selfish and his wife so forgiving - I thought at first that it could have been a cracking novel but suspect now that it might have been a bit hard to carry off. Novella it is then, and as it stands a really satisfying pair.

    And the rest of you - get that book of the shelf and read it, it's short so won't take long...