What would Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897), one of the most prolific of commentators on nineteenth-century society (98 novels; 50 or more short stories; 25 works of non-fiction, and over 300 essays) have made of the politics and social mores influencing events today? In particular how would she have reacted to the identity politics behind the plea for a hard Brexit, the current referendum stand-off between England and Scotland, and the triumph of Trump in the US presidential election?
Fiction relies upon novelists’ capacity to persuade readers to travel sufficiently far beyond the boundaries of their own experience, circumstances and mindset to imagine inhabiting and seeing the world from another point of view. To create convincing characters and dramatic plots, novelists need to be aware of the elements differentiating individuals and groups from one another as much as the basic human traits which bind us together. Much of Oliphant’s success as a social commentator came from her consciousness of her own multiple identities. Economically she migrated from the relative poverty of a humble clerk’s home, to the upper-middle-class lifestyle of the Home Counties.
As a woman, she experienced the roles of daughter, sister, wife, widow, mother, and aunt and became breadwinner for her extended family in the male-dominated world of nineteenth-century publishing. Born a proud Scot and retaining a pronounced accent, she was raised in a Scottish ex-pat community in Liverpool, but in adult life chose to settle in Windsor so as to give her sons an education at Eton. Yet she was also a committed cultural Europhile who developed sufficient facility in French and Italian to be appointed general editor of Blackwoods’ Foreign Classics for English Readers, and to be commissioned to provide a series of popular historical accounts of famous cities, among them Florence, Venice, and Rome.
Her best fiction is often created by the tension between these competing roles, loyalties, and milieux. Chronic sea-sickness prevented her from ever making the transatlantic voyage, though the light her novels cast on British and European society created a ready readership in both America and the colonies. So what would she have made of Donald Trump? Businessmen, it has to be said, do not get a good press in her fiction, largely on account of their inability to perceive either education or culture as anything other than a purchasable commodity designed to secure a particular class status.
Her later, darker novels were to provide an excoriating picture of the vulgar materialism which she felt had beset late Victorian society. In Trump’s case, she would also have deplored his connections with Scotland’s golf industry. To Oliphant, the institution of the golf-club symbolized the all-male preserve, capable of fostering the environment in which Trump’s infamous series of sexist remarks might be deemed acceptable: in which context it is perhaps worth remembering that it was commercial interest rather than a regard for gender equality that finally led Muirhead Golf Club to admit female members in March 2017.
Oliphant’s life story and creative use of her imaginative powers, serve to suggest that merely dismissing identity politics as an assault on democracy and liberal values is misplaced. Pride in, and loyalty to, the best values of a particular group are not necessarily inimical to an appreciation of the needs and virtues of other communities of interest. Rather it should be our educational aim to arouse awareness of the multiple identities we each inhabit, composed variously by such matters as gender, ethnicity, religion, economics, social class, educational opportunity, and locality, so that we are not tempted to fall back instinctively into the unthinking clichés of the group with whose interests we most easily relate.
Featured image credit: Title page of the first edition of Squire Arden, 1871. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.