I am a great fan of the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant. Her Carlingford series, set in a country town, is as brilliant as Trollope’s Barsetshire series. But somehow she doesn’t get her dues. Critics used to complain that Oliphant was too prolific to write well. Few of her books are in print.
Fortunately for us, Broadview has published a new edition of Oliphant’s superb novella, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond. In the introduction, the editor explains that by the 1930s Oliphant’s work had fallen out of favor. Her prolificacy was rooted in the need to support her family of three children, a terminally ill husband, her two older brothers, and two nieces and nephews. Both J. M. Barrie and Virginia Woolf regretted Oliphant’s need to be so productive. In the introduction to a posthumously-published collection of her stories in 1898, J. M. Barrie wrote with equal parts admiration and condescension about the uneven quality of her books: “…but whether they would have been greater books had she revised one instead of beginning another is to be doubted.”
In this stunning novella, Oliphant takes on the subject of bigamy. She has written a clever 19th-century retelling of the legend of Rosamond, whom Eleanor of Aquitaine allegedly murdered after learning she was King Henry II’s lover.
The heroine of this novella, of course, is not murderous: Eleanor Lycett-Landon is a devoted mother of six children, and the supportive wife of an easygoing, upper-middle-class businessman who works mainly in Liverpool. Oliphant writes, “She had money enough to help him in his business, and business connections in the West of Scotland (where the finest people have business connections), which helped him still more; and she was a good woman, full of accomplishments and good humour and intelligence.”
And shouldn’t that be enough for any man?
But at the age of 50, Robert claims the London branch of the company is in trouble. He spends months in London, seldom coming home to visit. When Eleanor offers to move the family to London, Robert adamantly refuses. Eventually, an old family friend gives Eleanor a tip: something is amiss, and she must go to London.
As you can imagine, Eleanor’s trip to London with her oldest son, Horace, is devastating. Imagine a quiet, contented woman discovering that her husband is living with a young wife in the suburbs. Imagine her experiencing compassion for the young woman.
She is devastated, we are devastated. But it is not the kind of drama we are used to in the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. (Excerpts from their novels are quoted in the back of the book.) It is the subtlety of Oliphant’s writing that most impressed me.
A fascinating novella, and the material in the back of the book about the reception of the book, bigamy laws, and other versions of the legend is invaluable.