I might have discovered a whole lot more about women’s writing had I come across Elaine Showalter’s ‘A Literature of Their Own’ back then rather than when it was re issued by Virago fairly recently. However Showalter seems to have a low opinion of Oliphant (which I’m loath to forgive) and which seems to be a fairly common critical approach to her work, it’s one I don’t understand. It seems to me that Oliphant has a lot to offer the reader both in terms of reasonably entertaining plot and engaging characters, as well as an insight into the lives of middle class women of the period.
The Phoebe Junior of the title is the daughter of Phoebe Tozer who set out (and succeeded) to marry a minister in ‘Salem Chapel’. Phoebe and her husband have done well for themselves, their children especially Phoebe junior may expect to do even better with good management and a bit of luck. Young Phoebe is very much aware of her worth and determined to make something of herself. (Oliphant returns to the subject of women’s education a few times in the book.) She is clever, able, and motivated but barred from higher education by her father’s position; not allowed to try for Cambridge “because Mr Beecham felt the connection might think it strange to see his daughters name in the papers, and, probably, would imagine he meant to make a schoolmistress of her, which he thanked providence he had no need to do.” Nor is she allowed to educate herself in the art of cooking because “Mrs Beecham objected, saying likewise, thank Heaven, they had no need of such messings: that she did not wish her daughter to make a slave of herself, and that cook would not put up with it.”
The books other heroine, Ursula May, has to learn to cook and keep house but despite a father capable of educating her himself, and brothers who it’s considered necessary to educate she and her sisters are left to learn what they can as inclination dictates. They lack Phoebe’s taste for self improvement as well as the opportunities that her relative wealth will bring. The future looks grim for the May girls if they can’t find husbands willing to overlook their poverty.
Ursula May the vicars daughter who befriends the dissenting ministers daughter occupies a higher social position but lacks her ambition, though she still has considerable independence of mind. She doesn’t overlook her father’s selfishness or bad temper and is clear sighted enough when it comes to the need to earn money, something that she wishes she could do, she’s also angry enough with her brothers determination to throw away a good position that he believes to be a sinecure reflecting that she’d quite happily hold it herself but that men keep all the good things for themselves.
“He was not very wise, nor a man to be enthusiastic about, but he would be a career to Phoebe. She did not think of it humbly like this, but with a big capital – a Career. Yes; she could put him into parliament and keep him there. She could thrust him forward (she believed) to the front of affairs. He would be as good as a profession, a position, a great work to Phoebe. He meant wealth (which she dismissed in its superficial aspect as something meaningless and vulgar, but accepted in its higher aspect as an almost necessary condition of influence) and he meant all the possibilities of future power. Who can say that she was not as romantic as any girl of twenty could be?”