Sunday, May 22, 2011

Phoebe Junior – Mrs Oliphant

My Oliphant experience is still pretty much confined to the Carlingford books but without reading the other eighty or so books she wrote I feel like I’ve got the hang of what she’s all about. I’ve also read enough to realise that Oliphant is one of the writers that I was sure existed but didn’t know how to find when I first went looking for women’s history. Common sense dictated that Austen, Eliot, and sundry Bronte’s didn’t spring fully formed from a vacuum but twenty odd years ago it wasn’t so easy to lay hands on evidence to the contrary.

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.

Phoebe though has definite plans for her own future albeit with a difficult path to tread. She means to marry money, or at least the son of money, but money itself is quite sure he wants ‘better’ for his son. A wrong step on Phoebe’s part would mean not only a loss of reputation on her part but it would make her father’s position very difficult, so when someone is needed to go home to Carlingford to nurse old Mrs Tozer and guard the family interests Phoebe is keen to go although living with her grandparents will put her in a very different and much lower class to the one she’s used to.

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.

What makes Phoebe unusual as a heroine is her determination to marry influence at the expense of love. It can’t have been a simple matter to write a character who could profess to want to do this and make her sympathetic at the same time – this is how she considers a coming proposal:
“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?”

Clarence (the young man in question) wants to marry Phoebe partly because he to realises that she will be able to do these things for him (it’s probably an unlikely state of though for Clarence but an agreeable bit of fantasy from Oliphant).

All of this and I haven’t even touched on a) the rest of the plot, and b) some interesting comments on other writers. Phoebe declares that “One reads Scott for Scotland (and a few other things), and one reads Miss Yonge for the church. Mr Trollope is good for that too, but not so good.” I take this to be Oliphant both paying tribute to her borrowings from Trollope – she certainly utilises the plot of ‘The Warden’ here, and suggesting that she can do the job better...


  1. I haven't read anything by Oliphant yet but this sounds absolutely perfect for me! I haven't been that excited by the plot summaries for any of her other novels but this definitely appeals!

  2. I've only read - and loved - Miss Majoriebanks - so am really enjoying your adventures in Carlingford. I have a feeling you mentioned that they're out of print now, a shame and rather odd when reprinting classics is very much a la mode. Perhaps someone will take Mrs Oliphant up.

    (And such a great name, are there any Oliphants left do you think?)

  3. Helen, some are in print, some print on demand copies available, there seem to be lots of ebook versions out there and the virago copies are all available very cheaply second hand on amazon at the moment (which is good because the Penelope Fitzgerald introductions are excellent). I really hope someone does take Mrs Oliphant up, she deserves to live on.

    Claire, Phoebe Junior and Miss Marjoriebanks are the best of the series (I think) but all the books work on their own, there really is no need to read the whole series or to read them in order which is always a bonus. If you like victoriana Oliphant is a revelation, but this is also a really good book about relationships - I could probably go on all night about how marvellous she is so I hope you do come across a copy and dive in.

  4. That dig at Trollope is hilarious. I take it as affectionate, but also a sign of Oliphant's confidence, which she had certainly earned by this point.

    You certainly make this novel sound comparable to The Perpetual Curate - comparable good.

    The weird first-wave feminist reaction to Oliphant is amusing. My impression is that later scholars, current ones, are doing a good job of correcting the excesses of the pioneers. Still, not good enough, since more Oliphant should obviously be in print!

  5. The Trollope comment delighted me when I found it. I came to Phoebe Junior with lowish expectations (the title didn't appeal) but it turned out to be a highlight in the series.

    I haven't read enough criticism to get to find what was considered to be the problem with Oliphant (and probably won't because I only end up shouting at the book).

    More Oliphant should be in print.

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