Scottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.
Margaret Elphinstone is the author of eight novels including The Sea Road, Hy Brasil, Voyageurs, Light and The Gathering Night. She has also written short stories, poetry, literary criticism and two books on organic gardening. Apart from a year teaching in an American university, her working life has been spent in Scotland, variously in Shetland, Moray, Edinburgh and at Strathclyde University where she is an emeritus professor of Writing. She now lives with her partner in Galloway. She has two daughters and five grandchildren.
A dangerous Victorian woman, you could say, was one who knew how to use her own Bradshaw. Imagine waiting to board the train at the old, dark Gare de Lyon on a bitterly gold January day in 1859. A young woman is supervising the porters as to which corded trunks and boxes should be stowed in the guard’s van. She pays off the Hansom cab driver. He shrugs at the moderate tip she gives him. She shepherds her party towards the Lyon train, through the incomprehensible shouts, the pushing crowds and the curling steam. There is some problem about the luggage; she can’t follow the rapid French, so so she fails to get the right receipt. That will be this evening’s problem. She is followed by a frail, hollow-eyed, young man, muffled in scarves and overcoat, a 6 year old girl and a 3 year old boy still in petticoats under his shawl, with his big-boned, dependable nurse Jane. The whole family look quite exhausted; they have already been travelling for twenty-four hours and the channel crossing was “dreadful”. The young woman tries to lead them on to the platform for the Lyon train, but is turned back. No doubt the toddler throws a tantrum at this point. They all crowd into a cold, stuffy waiting room. As that capable young woman wrote later, “It was my first experience of having to take the management of things myself, and all was new to me, and my French of the most limited description.”
But she managed. Just as she managed when the luggage didn’t arrive in Lyon and they couldn’t get a cab to their hotel, and when they had to find the right boat at Marseilles, and when Italy, contrary to all expectation, was wet and freezing, and when her husband Frank grew iller and iller until he died in Rome. She managed when six weeks later she gave birth to her last child. Then she took stock: “When I thus began the world anew I had for my fortune about £1000 of debt… our furniture laid up in a warehouse, and my own faculties, such as they were, to make our living and pay off our burdens by.”
It is hard now to fully understand what faced a destitute Victorian woman. What if Margaret Oliphant’s ‘own faculties’ had failed her? What would have happened to her, and to those three small children? It may seem these days that to write for one’s livelihood is a privilege. In the 1860s it was sometimes more a case of writing for one’s life. Oliphant rose to the necessity, but in doing so, what a threat she must have been to the prevailing ideology of the supremacy of the Victorian male, and the dependency of the middle class woman. Serious challenges to the status quo are often fuelled by desperate need. That puts the middle class woman fighting for her own and her family’s survival in the same bracket as the Parisians who stormed the Bastille, the Chartists, or the working-class revolutionaries of 1848. Margaret Oliphant would be appalled, I fear, if she looked over my shoulder and saw me writing that. Her strategy was quite often not to admit connections between life’s difficulties and a wider social, economic or political disjunction. Hence her famous rejection of the suffragette movement – though in later life she did change her mind on that. She was pre-occupied with the ever-present need of “having to take the management of things myself”. That’s what the strong women characters in her novels also have to do. The only way out of the difficult, oppressive situation is to be practical and get on with it. Oliphant was, after all, Scottish. Although she pours out her feelings in the private relief of her diary and autobiography, her prevailing attitude is to face what comes, and deal with it. No one else is going to. That kind of independence, born of dire necessity, is dangerous to any kind of oppression.
Oliphant’s fictional women characters show independence as a psychological strength rather than an economic or political goal. Sometimes this separation requires a rather specious plot twist to sustain it. Lucilla Marjoribanks, in Miss Marjoribanks, for example, never dreams or worries about becoming economically independent of her father. Her autonomy rests upon her delightful lack of self-doubt, her domestic schemes and local projects which absorb her creative mind and her candid clarity of thought. Her courage seems to be based upon a total lack of imagination. She admits (not entirely correctly) that she has no sense of humour; she sees everything quite flatly. This does cause some damage, as Lucilla simply fails to see that giving other women walk-on parts in her own drama may arouse emotions and create turmoil, in a manner quite alien to Lucilla’s well-regulated mind. But does Lucilla have no neuroses of her own? Did it truly never cross her mind that one day Dr Marjoribanks would die? After all, Lucilla’s mother had died. Lucilla’s author knew all about death, and the threat of destitution which followed it. But Lucilla only has to go through the motions of rising to the situation. Her psychological strength is a mild threat, especially to the inadequate men who surround her, but she’s not dangerous. People may be upset for a day, but upsetting the status quo is outside her remit.
The heroine of Hester is far more of a smouldering match, with more than a whiff of dynamite at the other end. But the explosion has already happened, and again, it was well-controlled by the patriarchal world whom it served in their hour of need. Hester’s aunt, Miss Catherine, through her decisive, business-like action, saved the family bank. The question hovers through the book: if Catherine had become the Managing Director, instead of having to train her posse of inadequate nephews, how successful a capitalist might she have become? Instead, she stage-manages her own small world in which her surly relations continually resent the parts she has written for them. She cannot abide Hester, because Hester still hopes for something better than to subside into a narrow sphere. Hester says:
I should like to do what she did. Something of one’s own free will – something that no one can tell you or require you to do – which is not even your duty bound down upon you. Something voluntary, even dangerous – … That is exactly what I shall never have it in my power to do.”
“I hope not, indeed, if it is dangerous,” said Roland. (p230)
Do any of Oliphant’s attractive, strong women characters ever achieve the power to do “something voluntary, even dangerous”? Not one faces the desperate needs, disappointments or multiple bereavements that faced their author. Perhaps Oliphant thought it unwise to present such strong material to her reading public. And yet, she had precedents for more overtly dangerous fictions. She would have read, for two examples among many, Wuthering Heights and Mary Barton which, in very different ways, both take their central characters to dangerous extremes. Carlingford, Oliphant’s imaginary English town, appears to be both psychologically and economically a much safer place. Though perhaps it’s only plot that makes it so. The gaps in the story, the unanswered ‘what ifs?’ raise far more dangerous questions than the plot resolves. Nettie in The Doctor’s Family, just like Oliphant herself, has to provide for her nephews and nieces while their father collapses into alcoholic stupor and an early death. Nettie’s ungrateful sister Susan is a frightful warning of what a dependent woman can become. But Susan is the one who gets taken care of by a nice Australian bush ranger who arrives opportunely, while Nettie would be flung to the winds, were it not that the Doctor marries her and all ends well. Phoebe Junior, in the novel of that name, chooses between a love that would at least be ‘voluntary, sometimes dangerous’, and assured economic, bourgeouis security. Phoebe has experienced what it means to become declassé, and she is as matter-of-fact as Lucilla. She makes her choice. Is she dangerous or conformist, wise or wicked?
Fear, poverty, madness and destitution lurk on the fringes of prim Carlingford. Curates, doctors and women church workers engage with the unruly, disenfanchised communities on the edge. These marginal places are infectious: middle class protagonists catch dangerous ideas. Sometimes women confined in stifling social roles and economic dependency are threatened by poverty without and madness within. Oliphant knew all about boundaries. Hers are permeable, unstable and threatening. Behind the structured, contained plots there lies a host of shadows.
These shadows come to the fore in her Tales of the Unseen. One could read her short stories of the afterlife as a desperate, impassioned longing for the dead. She literally saw all her children die, some in infancy, some as young adults. In that respect she lived in a far more dangerous world than ours. The outpouring of suffering she wrote after her daughter Maggie’s death in Rome at the age of eleven breaks all boundaries of structure and convention. She chronicles her struggle with her God who has snatched Maggie away, while she still tries to conform to her Christian belief: “this is the faith he demands of me.” Perhaps more convincing is a different source of comfort: the blurring of boundaries between past and present, life and death, the real and the imagined. Even through the hardest times, Oliphant emphasises the joys of family life. More than once in her writing she uses the image of standing outside the now-deserted family home, imagining that she could walk back into the house, into the past, where she would find the people she loved still alive. Her unattainable heaven is finding herself home again. She found literary society difficult, always feeling herself on the edge and not fully recognised. She very often positions herself as outsider, sometimes in very literal images.
Outsiders tend to be dangerous. They are those made homeless by circumstances and social hierarchies. They lurk in the shadowy boundaries in which people are not fully accepted, do not fully conform. A lot of those Victorian outsiders were women. What they had to say – what Margaret Oliphant had to say – was a good deal more dangerous than most people were aware. I don’t suppose that anyone at the time fully grasped that writers like Oliphant were not only observing, but actually constructing the narrative of their times. After all, what we read of that vanished Victorian world is what they wrote. What we know about it is what they have told us. A very dangerous power to be given into the hands of women without powers.