Margaret Oliphant (1828–97)

Margaret Oliphant (1892), from the frontispiece of 'A Literary History of England from 1760 to 1825'Margaret Oliphant (née Wilson) was a remarkable writer who published 98 novels, 25 non-fiction works, more than 50 short stories and over 300 articles and reviews in periodicals. She was born in Wallyford on 4 April 1828, and grew up in Lasswade, Glasgow and then Liverpool.

Margaret started writing when she was 17, and by 21 she had published her first book, Passages in the Life of Mrs Margaret Maitland. Her mother brought her home to reacquaint her with her old doctor, the writer David Macbeth Moir, who wrote for Blackwood’s Magazine. She joined the ranks of renowned authors such as Sir Walter Scott when she too became a regular contributor to the magazine after her early novel, Katie Stewart, was serialised in it.

In 1852 she married her cousin, Francis William Oliphant, an artist, and they moved to London. She had six children, three of whom died in infancy. The family moved to Italy when her husband was diagnosed with TB, but he died in 1859. Forced to write to repay debts and maintain her family (which grew to include her brother and his two youngest children), this was the start of her most prolific period.

Her later writings have strong  female characters, and she is considered by many to have been an early feminist. By the 1880s she was known for declaring: ‘I think it is absurd that I should not have a vote, if I want one.’ She advocated a married women’s property act, a mother’s right to custody of her children, women doctors and university education for women.

She worked right up to her last days – she was still correcting proofs for her Annals of a Publishing House: William Blackwood and his sons, their magazine and Friends on her deathbed. She died in London on 25 July 1897. There is a commemorative plaque in her honour at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh.

Her talents were recognised by Virginia Woolf, who described her autobiography as ‘a most genuine and moving piece of work’. She corresponded with R.L. Stevenson and she told him that: ‘I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing – beside the big fact that it was necessary to work for my children.’

Further reading:

Oliphant, Margaret, The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. Margaret Oliphant, 1899

Oliphant, Margaret, novels such as The Chronicles of Carlingford series

Williams, Merryn, Margaret Oliphant: a critical biography, 1986

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