Subtle subversions of Victorian gender conventions

Laura Witz is an Edinburgh-based writer, director and theatre producer. For the last seven years she was running a theatre company in Edinburgh, focusing on representing a female experience and offering opportunities to women in the arts. She currently runs a local feminist arts review and is writing her first collection of short stories.


Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress—that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs…

                                                                                  George Eliot, ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’


Nineteenth century circular libraries were packed full of terrible novels.

Where now the internet and online self publishing platforms provide the route for this, in the 1800s, these books were published in magazines and even as novels, because, after all, some people like reading about rakish men biting their lips. And yet this aligning of the female writer with such trivialities has been generally damaging and still perpetuates to this day with the desperate insistence that women prefer rom-coms and the pushing of great social commentary literature such as that of Austen, the Brontës and Gaskell into a ‘romantic’ corner.

This is arguably also the reason why so many great female writers from history remain completely ignored, caught out by the catch twenty two that still perpetuates: the only acceptable form for them to write was romance, yet critics now and then dismiss them for use of such a ‘trivial’ form. When they do in fact stray beyond the genre, write for money, or engage with topics outside the ‘female sphere’, they are frequently regarded with suspicion and condemnation, considered a danger to the white, male, middle class institution.

Margaret O W Oliphant, born in Edinburgh in 1828, is one of Scotland’s most prolific writers. Publishing over 90 novels, over 50 short stories and 300 articles, Oliphant worked doggedly throughout her adult life to support a large extended family and network of dependents, working in much the same way that countless famous male writers were doing. However, as a woman, Oliphant’s industry has often been regarded with derision. She was dismissed by Virginia Woolf for having ‘sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children…’ (Three Guineas).

And yet, it is Oliphant who nevertheless creates a series of insightful, witty and compelling narratives and characters that are deeply uncomfortable with the romantic conventions of the nineteenth century novel. Particularly in the endings of her works, we can see refusals to push the characters into a preconceived form. Victorian conventions for the genders, particularly in the middle classes, were very clear – middle class women ran the household sphere, middle class men worked and, although masters of the home, were expected to be predominantly outwith the private space.

This is a convention that Oliphant rather hilariously plays with in her 1860’s novel, Miss Marjoribanks, in which Lucilla Marjoribanks returns home from boarding school determined to fulfil her ‘role’ as a grown woman. In so doing she steamrollers her father and his comfortable life, pushing him to accept his place as a man so she can fulfil her own as a woman, quite literally taking over his role and even his chair in the household. Interestingly, Lucilla also puts off marriage as long as she can do so without inciting scorn, or as she phrases it, until she is close to ‘going off’.

This witty understanding of the structure of the Victorian middle classes underpins Oliphant’s writing. This is perhaps most clear in Oliphant’s autobiography, written towards the end of her life as part vindication and part reminiscence, where she uses Victorian narrative conventions to mitigate any threat she may present as a woman who has lived her life against convention – as a woman who has not only supported herself, but also multiple men in her life. Elizabeth Jay argues in the introduction that ‘the self that Oliphant presents in the Autobiography is a deliberate creation’ (Introduction xi).

When we move onto her fictional writings and away from this determined attempt to self fictionalise, Oliphant’s rejection of the romantic ideal becomes explicit, however. At the end of Hester, after the heroine has been betrayed by the man she loves, the final lines don’t even bother to give us a proper romantic conclusion:

And as for Hester, all that can be said for her is that there are two men whom she may choose between, and marry either if she pleases—good men both, who will never wring her heart. Old Mrs Morgan desires one match, Mrs John another. What can a young woman desire more than to have such a possibility of choice? (495)

This ending mocks the convention of marrying the heroine off at the end. Rather than simply choosing not to engage with the matter, or dwelling on her broken heart, Oliphant instead trivialises Hester’s decision by presenting her with two potential suitors, who, we are told, ‘she may choose between’ and follows this up with the equally trivial opinions of some local gossips. The two men are set out here rather like a couple of suitors in a Disney movie, both great options, both innocuous, neither will be of much interest or much bother, whether she marries them or not.

This idea that marriage — the conventional ending of the female narrative — is not in fact everything for a woman is echoed in the autobiography, where Oliphant admits it to be true of herself. ‘I have learned to take perhaps more a man’s view of mortal affairs, – to feel that the love between men and women, the marrying and giving in marriage, occupy in fact so small a portion of either existence or thought’ (10).

In Miss Marjoribanks and in Hester we are explicitly told that these women could do much more. Hester’s aunt, herself a business woman, tells her that ‘you would be an excellent man of business’ (492), bemoaning that it would be impossible for Hester to fill this role, the role that, in the final stages of the novel, seems by far the most suitable and preferred, certainly preferred over marriage. In Miss Marjoribanks we are presented with a woman of so much energy and power that she has put off marriage for ten years in order that she might ‘manage’ her local town — management that involved arranging everything from local politics to local romances. Hester’s aunt does suggest she assume a business role via marriage, but this is a poor alternative, of that we are very aware.

And yet, aware of the way in which taking her heroines in such a rebellious direction would not only damage their fictional reputation, but also her own real and already fragile one, Oliphant treads a tightrope of convention, often caging the threat she presents in humour. Lucilla does marry at the end of Miss Marjoribanks, although perhaps in part simply because a financial and personal crisis has impacted her position of power in the town — which will indeed be righted by marriage to Tom. This is presented as a romantic conclusion to the novel, but if we look closely at the final sections there is a curious disconnection between the pair:

“Tom, let us leave off talking nonsense—the thing that we both want is something to do.”

“That is what I want,” said Tom quickly, “but as for you, Lucilla, you shall do nothing but enjoy yourself and take care of yourself. The idea of you wanting something to do!”

Miss Marjoribanks regarded her betrothed with mild and affectionate contempt as he thus delivered himself of his foolish sentiments. “It is of no use trying to make him understand,” she said, with an air of resignation. “Do you know that I have always been doing something, and responsible for something, all my life?”

“Yes, my poor darling,” said Tom, “I know; but now you are in my hands I mean to take care of you, Lucilla; you shall have no more anxiety or trouble. What is the good of a man if he can’t save the woman he is fond of from all that?” cried the honest fellow—and Lucilla could not but cast a despairing glance round her, as if appealing to heaven and earth. What was to be done with a man who had so little understanding of her, and of himself, and of the eternal fitness of things?

“My dear Tom,” she said once more, mildly, … I have always tried to be of some use to my fellow-creatures,” said Lucilla, “and I don’t mean, whatever you may say, to give it up now.” (481)

This rather exasperating exchange is an odd one to express in the final stages of a novel, just as the two are in the thralls of pre-marital bliss. Tom seems unable to accept that Lucilla, whom he has known since he was young, can be anything other than a passive romantic ideal after he proposes to her. Lucilla, although happy and in love, is also very aware that she will need more in her life than just Tom to be happy. She needs, as she so clearly states, ‘something to do’. In this and so often, there is a disconnection between men and women, even lovers, that seems unable to be bridged in Oliphant’s work, and particularly where it comes to the romantic conclusion.

In The Ladies Lindores – a less well known work of Oliphant’s, the author creates one of her most surprising and dramatic scenes. Carry, ‘the absolute incarnation of the ideal of the self-sacrificing female’ (Jay, Fiction to Herself 135), is married for family advantage to a man she despises. This leads to an oppressive and tyrannical relationship, and when he dies, a surprisingly honest scene:

Suddenly Carry flung herself into her mother’s arms. “Oh my innocent mother!” she cried. “Oh, mother! you only know such troubles as angels have. Look at me! look at me! I am like a mad woman. I am keeping myself in, as you say, that I may not go mad–with joy!”

Lady Lindores gave a low terrible cry, and held her daughter in her arm, pressing her desperately to her heart as if to silence her. “No, Carry—no, no,” she cried.

“It is true. To think I shall never be subject to all that any more—that he can never come in here again— that I am free—that I can be alone. Oh, mother, how can you tell what it is? Never to be alone: never to have a corner in the world where—some one else has not a right to come, a better right than yourself. I don’t know how I have borne it. I don’t know how I have lived, disgusted, loathing myself. No, no; sometime else I shall be sorry when I have time to think, when I can forget what it is that has happened to me—but in the meantime I am too happy—too—”

Lady Lindores put her hand up to her daughter’s mouth. “No, no, Carry—no, no; I cannot bear it—you must not say it,” she cried. (2:232)

Calling out the hypocrisy of many such Victorian narratives, Oliphant draws a conclusion to this story that flies directly and explicitly in the face of expectation. You wonder what the italicised ‘all that’ is referring to, and suspect it may be exactly what we think, also suggesting the levels of abuse in the marriage went well beyond the invasion of Carry’s personal space. In this, Oliphant is treading a line of honesty that is well beyond what is acceptable, and again, she cages it in very subtle ways, moving the subject on very fast.

This novel, dated to 1884 and thus the later part of the Victorian period, presents an indictment of romantic and unrealistic ideals and is in itself representative of the deep mistrust Oliphant continually displays towards romance and the conventional happy ending. Carry’s outburst is surprising within a generally conventional narrative, but it is also reflective of the way in which it is honesty rather than romance that is so often Oliphant’s priority. And yet again, her sister’s happy ending is entirely romantic and conventional, a kind of apology for Carry’s story.

Margaret Oliphant, and the way she is currently regarded by the literary cannon, is highly representative of the way in which women as a whole, and particularly historically, are caught in a catch twenty two with regard to their art. Damned if they do and if they don’t, very few have been able to surpass so many levels of condemnation and expectation that their head remains above the parapet. With the still prevalent sectioning off of ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘women’s genres’ we can see the way the institution has struggled to keep women out of the central narrative.

In the nineteenth century, female writers were encouraged to ‘stick to what they were good at’ and ‘know their limits’, a call that served the dual purpose of keeping their art sidelined and providing a reason to sideline their art. In Margaret Oliphant’s work, however, as with so many other forgotten female writers, we can see this resentment with the form, the struggle to simultaneously push beyond it and, for economic reasons, stay within a structure that will be acceptable to the male institution that is to be their publishers, editors and critics.




Eliot, George. ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.’ The Essays of George Eliot. Ed. Nathan Sheppard. New York: Funk & Wagnallis, 1883: 178-205.

Jay, Elisabeth. ‘Introduction.’ The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant. Ed. Elisabeth Jay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990: vii-xvii.

Jay, Elisabeth. Mrs Oliphant: ‘A Fiction to Herself’- A Literary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Oliphant, Margaret. The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant. Ed. Elisabeth Jay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Oliphant, Margaret. Hester. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Oliphant, Margaret. The Ladies Lindores. 3 vols. Adamant Media Corporation: Elibron Classics, 2005.

Oliphant, Margaret. Miss Marjoribanks. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. Australia: Don Lainson, 2002. Project Gutenberg. Web. 15 March 2016.