My study, all the study I have ever attained to, is the little second drawing-room where all the (feminine) life of the house goes on; and I don’t think I have ever had two hours undisturbed (except at night when everybody is in bed) during my whole literary life.’ So wrote the Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant in her plaintive memoir.
She had good reason to be often melancholy, not because of the conditions in which she worked, but because she lost so many of her family when she and they were still young. One chapter of her reminiscences, in particular, has an eery quality, only explained when she reveals that as she writes she is sitting beside her grown son Cecci’s coffin. By this stage she had been widowed for quarter of a century, since 1859, when her artist husband died in Italy of tuberculosis, when she was on the point of again giving birth. This left her with three children (three others had died in infancy), one of whom, her only daughter, died a few years later and was buried with her father in his grave in Rome.
The appalling arithmetic of Victorian mortality is hard to imagine, despite Mrs Oliphant’s heart-rending descriptions. Many genteel wives finding themselves in the same situation would have been helpless, incapable of supporting their family without a husband. Despite her grief and fear, how-ever, Mrs Oliphant was resourceful. Born in Wallyford, near Edinburgh, she had published her first novel in 1848, at the age of 21. When events left her alone and almost penniless, she began to churn out books, so many, and so fast that by the time of her death, in 1897, she had written over 110. Ninety-seven of them were novels. Gentle social realism, romance, and historical fiction was her territory, along with tales of the supernatural.
It is Oliphant’s recollections rather than her novels, however, that are compelling. A mirror to her times, they are endlessly fascinating despite their morbid tone. She is only one of several writers included in Scotland: Her Story, in which the history of the country since the early middle ages is told in the words of women, or those who recorded their actions. It makes for a different view of the past, much of it inevitably based on the home front. What piques the interest with Mrs Oliphant, for instance, is that while she may have had to write in the parlour, constantly breaking off to tend to children or visitors, she was conducting a business that, like all successful writers, would carry her ideas across the world. What she wrote in the hours of darkness when she had liberty to think, was arguably as influential and important as most of the everyday doings of men in parliament, trade, councils or churches. While men were patted on the back, awarded honours and titles and bonuses, novel writing – though only when undertaken by a woman – was viewed with amused tolerance. Yet even Mrs Oliphant acknowledged that things had improved immeasurably since the turn of the century when, she wrote, Jane Austen’s family ‘were half ashamed to have it known that she was not just a young lady like the others, doing her embroidery. Mine were quite pleased to magnify me, and proud of my work, but always with a hidden sense that it was an admirable joke, and no idea that any special facilities or retirement was necessary.’
At various points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women writers utter the refrain now indelibly linked to Virginia Woolf: the need for a room of one’s own. Like Mrs Oliphant, they rarely got it. Mary Somerville, the celebrated mathematician who earned an international reputation for her genius, revised and interpreted Laplace’s algebraic ideas while also being constantly interrupted. Nor could she write in her own room in winter, since no fire was allowed in it.
These and other writerly issues are included in the book, less for their literary significance than for the light they throw on women’s position, and the expectations placed on them – lowly in the first instance, and exceptionally high in the second. To meet the terms and conditions imposed on wives, daughters and mothers in any age except perhaps the last half century required meekness, dedication, selflessness, inventiveness and stamina. It’s hardly surprising that those with intellectual or creative impulses felt stifled and oppressed, sometimes to the point of insanity.
By the time of Mrs Oliphant’s death in 1897 she had written over 110 books. Ninety-seven of them were novels. Gentle social realism, romance and historical fiction was her territory…
Would Jane Welsh Carlyle have become one of the finest ever letter-writers had she been free to pursue a career? Yet while her abilities were clearly thwarted by convention, the way in which she channelled her energy has left a timeless record of marriage and domestic life that is second to none. Her letters, to a wide circle of friends and family, are one of the brightest illuminations of Victorian life we have. They also allow occasional glimpses into the secret feelings of an often unhappy wife. Married to the acclaimed and irascible historian, Thomas Carlyle, Jane assiduously kept house for him, exercising her pen almost every day in brilliantly sharp and witty descriptions of her doings. Nothing was beneath her observation: decorators, dinners, the great historian himself and, on occasion, her alcoholic servant: ‘My poor little Helen has been gradually getting more and more into the habit of tippling – until, some fortnight ago, she rushed down into a fit of the most decided drunkenness that I ever happened to witness. … Finally, we got her bolted into the back kitchen, in a corner of which she had established herself all coiled up and fuffing like a young tiger about to make a spring, or like the Bride of Lammermoor (if you ever read that profane book).’
How ironic that her spouse, still acknowledged as among the first rank of historians, is barely read today. Jane’s writing, meanwhile, is as fresh as when she dipped her nib in ink. Had women been able to exercise their brains in that period as they can today, it seems probably that she would have written books on serious subjects. They might have been erudite or sage, but they would doubtless have dated too. The personal, highly engaging style she uses in her private correspondence would have been lost in the ponderous literary conventions thought necessary to convey elevated ideas.
Indeed, the uncomfortable truth for many of the bygone novelists, poets and writers included in the book is that much of their fascination today lies not in their works of art but in what their letters, diaries or memoirs show of the period they lived through. If you wish to reserve a place in posterity, perhaps you should consider keep-ing a journal or writing a memoir.
Nobody now reads the best-selling romantic novelist Annie S Swan, but her spirited autobiography reveals how she got involved in giving inspirational moralizing talks to the troops in France early in world war one. Swan was a devout Christian, but she also had a sense of humour. This became necessary when she unexpectedly found herself addressing hundreds of young soldiers in a quarantine camp, who were being treated for venereal disease. A few years later, her novel The Pendulum, which gently alluded to women’s sexuality, led to her being ostracized. ‘One minister’s wife told me quite gravely, and with considerable unction, that she was one of a little coterie who had met together to pray that I might be restored to the right way. Another told me that, on the Leith to London boat, a group of women had met in the saloon to discuss the book, and the finding was, “She has let us down.”
I don’t believe I have ever been restored to confidence or favour in these circles. But it does not keep me awake at night.’
Among the most evocative autobiographies in recent memory is Christian Miller’s A Childhood in Scotland. First published in The New Yorker, it describes her upbringing in a haunted Highland castle, and is a rare insight into the lives of the aristocracy and gentry in this often lonely, cut-off region in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The historical record is filled with the deeds of royalty and aristocracy in interesting, violent times, but noticeably lacking, especially in the past century, is a personal view from this class. It is almost as if, as democracy replaced deference and the lower orders were finally allowed to speak, those in the upper echelons shrank into themselves.
The novelist Naomi Mitchison was one of this elite, but as a bohemian she escaped the common rules that dictated how the classes interacted. Her memoir is luminous, arguably one of her finest works, in which she recalls her upbringing in sooty Edinburgh only a stone’s throw geographically and historically from that of Robert Louis Stevenson. When, as part of the Mass Observation project, she kept a war-time diary, airbrushed memory gives way to daily accounting. There is no varnish in these entries, just the dash and colour of a natural writer and thinker. When she describes the death of her infant daughter in 1940, the day after her birth, she has to steel herself: ‘I had better get this over,’ she writes, before giving a matter-of-fact account that cannot hide her pain.
Passages like these are a reminder of how previous generations lived and felt. Nobody has ever doubted the sorrow of losing a child, be it last century or in the middle ages. Yet to hear a mother describe the experience is to come close to a moment in history that might seem insignificant in the grand sweep of events, but for an individual in one of the defining moments of their existence.
Not all the revelations, thankfully, are bleak. The pieces in this book are drawn from women of all occupations and ranks. You will find as many being critical as kowtowing, making comedy as well as marriages, defying the rules, the authorities and their spouses, and going their own way with a gleam in their eye. At times it is also possible to see how little has changed. Many of us will recognize Mary Somerville’s complaint that: ‘I rose early and made such arrangements with regard to my children and family affairs that I had time to write afterwards; not, however, without many interruptions. A man can always command his time under the plea of business, a woman is not allowed any such excuse.’ These days, of course, the problem is not emancipation or respect. It is simply called working from home.