Uneven Books, Unsettling Endings

When the cold is record-breaking (20 degrees below zero), we stay indoors.   I managed to finish two books,  Margaret Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor and Anne Maybury’s The Minerva Stone.

The neglected Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant is consistently workmanlike, sometimes great.  Her  well-plotted novels are  riveting.    I think of her as the female Trollope: indeed, her Chronicles of Carlingford, set in the fictional country town of Carlingford, were inspired by Trollope’s Barsetshire series.    I enjoyed The Marriage of Elinor, published in 1891, a book I chose randomly from her books at Project Gutenberg.  In this  splendidly entertaining novel, a willful young woman, Elinor, marries The Hon. Philip Compton,  despite the rumors about his immorality and the objections of her mother and cousin John Tatham.  Alas, Phil proves to be an unscrupulous businessman; he also leaves Elinor  to give birth in an isolated cottage (her mother gets there just in time) while he has an affair with a flirtatious woman at a house party. After their son Pippo (Philip) is born,  Elinor refuses to go back to her husband, and she and her mother flee to another town where they hope not to be found.

What if Philip decides he wants his son, Pippo? And what will be the consequences if Elinor doesn’t tell Pippo?

This is a common Victorian heroine’s nightmare in fiction.    In Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a mother flees to an isolated country house to protect her son from an alcoholic father; in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, a father kidnaps their son.

The second half feels a little rushed, but the structure is a perfect ring composition.   Oliphant supported her extended family by her prolific writing, and I suspect she didn’t have time to develop the ideas–particularly the ending.  Still, a good read!

A GOTHIC NOVEL. In the 1960s and ’70s  Gothics were in vogue, and I was always reading  books by Mary Stewart and her ilk.  It is possible I read Anne Maybury’s The Minerva Stone  back then. I do remember this author.  At any rate, I galloped today through this uneven, eerie novel.  Think  I Capture the Castle meets a Gothic heroine fleeing along a cliff path!

The jacket copy says:

THE HAUNTING STORY OF A SUMMER OF TERROR–AND LOVE–IN A BEUATIFUL DORSET CASTLE

How fun is that!

Sarah Palfrey’s  marriage to egomaniac TV interviewer Niall Rhodes is in crisis.  She is staying at her childhood home Guinever Court, a comfy castle by the sea, while Niall is out of the country.  Her family is artistic, loud, and emotional:   her father Kestrel Palfrey, an artist, hates Niall; Freda, her stepmother, a former opera singer, is an earth mother;  her father’s helpless first wife, Polly, and handicapped daughter  by another man, Dido, live there because Polly can’t make a living; and Sarah’s other siblings drop in and out.

 Maybury might have been inclined to write a realistic novel about an artistic family but constrained by the genre of romantic suspense.  (She merely sketches the family members, but there is potential here.) When Niall arrives at Guinever, Sarah and Niall are precipitated into  danger. Someone tries to run Sarah down with a car; someone shoots at Niall and grazes his arm.  Is Luke, Sarah’s former lover, a doctor, involved?  Or the mysterious woman who calls herself Alexandra?

Tune in and find out!

And this is another one with a weird ending.  More post-modern than Gothic.  I will tell you no more!

N.B.  This is not in the class of Mary Stewart’s books!  I’d say it’s third-tier Gothic.  Nonetheless, I  loved the last hundred pages.

“Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond” by Margaret Oliphant

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.

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862), Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones