PREFACE BY MERRYN WILLIAMS
John Brown and Queen Victoria
Mrs Oliphant (1828-97), one of the outstanding writers of the nineteenth century, was in her time as well-known as Dickens, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell: ‘the exemplary woman of letters’ is how the literary critic Queenie Leavis described the author of Persephone Book No. 89, The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow. And the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald's claim was that ‘Mrs Oliphant is at her very best in novellas and short stories.’ She suggested that two of them, The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow (1890) and Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond (1886), might well be reprinted together, which is what we have now done, and pointed out that the strongest theme running through all the books is that of the helpless man and the strong woman.
Both novellas are about women left on their own to run their own households. In one, Penelope Fitzgerald continues, ‘Mrs Blencarrow, a conventional widow with a large estate, falls in love with her coarse-mannered steward, and in the other the wife, Mrs Lycett-Landon, finds out that her husband has made a bigamous marriage. She has the other woman's address and resolutely sets out for the distant suburb, the street, the house. What follows is “tragifarce”, as the author calls it, “the most terrible of all,” and she risks a conclusion that dies away into silence and echoes.’
In one respect Mrs Oliphant's subjects were ‘the staples of Victorian women's fiction – money, wills, marriages, church and chapel, disgraceful relatives, family power struggles, quarrels, deathbeds, ghosts.’ Yet, writes Dr Merryn Williams, who published a critical biography of Mrs Oliphant and has now written the Persephone Afterword for us: ‘The two novellas in this volume… written in the late 1880s… are surprisingly un-Victorian. Each ends, not with a marriage as is usual, but with the break-up of a marriage. Each is about the terribly destructive effects of middle-aged passion.’ As Mrs Oliphant herself said about the husband in Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond, Mr Lycett-Landon: ‘It seems as if they [men] must break out – as if common life and duty become insupportable.’ And as J M Barrie wrote of this novella, ‘It is as terrible and grim a picture of a man tired of fifty years of respectability as was ever written’, adding, ‘Mrs Oliphant wrote so many short stories that she forgot their names and what they were about, but readers, I think, will not soon forget this one’, written by a woman who ‘was of an intellect so alert that one wondered she ever fell asleep.’
A printed velveteen designed by Lewis F Day sold by Liberty's in 1888.