The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

June 25, 2013

June 25, 1897

The Victorian era could be seen as a time when the meaning of words and rituals was rigorously questioned in a new format: the novel. An aspect was the fretting over the meaning of the marriage sacrament. The women novelists of the 19th century plumbed the nature of social conventions.  When  Jane Austen was concerned with the economic verities surrounding marriage, and Charlotte Bronte the nature of marital commitment, they were just part of an on-going exploration of social relations. This was a natural outcome of the questioning of religious assumptions which was an ongoing cultural advance.

So Margaret Oliphant 
(April 4, 1828 to  June 25, 1897) in novels,  such as A country gentleman and his family (1886) portrays the effects of a marriage ceremony conducted when one partner was unknowingly already married to someone (someone he thought was dead, but who was not). Here's one effect of such ambiguity. The scene we quote involves the sister of the bride, (Minnie) who is herself married to a vicar (Eustace) complaining to their mother about the situation this marriage brought about:
And Minnie's outraged virtue was almost more rampant still. That Eustace should have any connection with a scandal which had even got into the newspapers, that a girl who was his sister-in-law should have got herself talked about, was to Minnie a wrong which blazed up to heaven. "For myself, I should not have minded," she said, "at least, however much I minded I should have said as little as possible; but when I think that Eustace has been made a gazing-stock to all the world through me—oh, you may think it extravagant, but I don't . Of course, he has been made a gazing-stock. 'Brother-in-law to that Miss Warrender, you know'—that is how people talk, as if it could possibly be his fault. I am sure he bears it like an angel . All he has ever said, even to me, is, 'Minnie, I wish we had looked into things a little more ......
Chatty's ruin,—yes, it is Chatty's ruin, whatever you may say. Who will ever look at her,—a girl who has been married and yet isn't married? She will never find any one. She will just have to live with you, like two old cats in a little country town, as Eustace says."

"If Mr. Thynne calls your mother an old cat, you should have better taste than to repeat it," said Mrs. Warrender; "I hope he is not so vulgar, Minnie, nor you so heartless."

"Vulgar! Eustace! The Thynnes are just the best bred people in the world. I don't know what you mean. A couple of old ladies living in a little place, and gossiping about everything,—everybody has the same opinion. And this is just what it comes to, when no attention is paid. And they say you have actually let him come here, let Chatty meet him, to take away every scrap of respect that people might have had. He never heard of such a mistake, Eustace says, it shows such a want of knowledge of the world."

"This is going too far, Minnie; understand, once for all, that what Eustace Thynne says is not of the least importance to me, and that I think his comments most inappropriate. Poor Dick is going off to California to-morrow. He is going to get his divorce."

Minnie gave a scream which made the thinly built London house ring, and clasped her hands. "A Divorce!" she cried; "it only wanted this. Eustace said that was what it would come to. And you would let your daughter marry a man who has been divorced!"

Minnie spoke in such a tone of injured majesty that Mrs. Warrender was almost cowed, for it cannot be denied that this speech struck an echo in her own heart. The word was a word of shame. She did not know how to answer; that her Chatty, her child who had come so much more close to her of late, should be placed in any position which was not of good report, that the shadow of any stain should be upon her simple head, was grievous beyond all description to her mother. And she was far from being an emancipated woman. She had all the prejudices, all the diffidences of her age and position Her own heart cried out against this expedient with a horror which she had done her best to overcome. For the first time she faltered and hesitated as she replied—

"There can be no hard-and-fast rule; our Lord did not do it, and how can we? It is odious to me as much as to any one. But what would you have him do? ...

I quoted a bit much, to remind us how much has changed.  Margaret Oliphant despised feminism, something she compared to a dead cat. But it was her accurate  detailing of how social conventions translated into people's lives that prepared a society for such things as feminism. 

Oliphant wrote many novels and biographies also. She found herself the sole support of a large family after her husband died, a family which shrank as all her children died, and swelled as she welcomed under her roof relatives suffering financial reverses.  She supported them with her writing. And this shows us the market for cerebral entertainment in the 19th century,  a new and vigorous market, before this job was borne through new media.

Let us remember also the non-fiction Oliphant wrote;  her biographies include these titles:

The life of Edward Irving, illustr. by his journals and correspondence (1862)
Francis of Assisi (1871)
Sheridan (1883) 
A memoir of the life of John Tulloch (1889 )
Memoir of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and of Alice Oliphant, His Wife
(2 vols) (1892)

This non-fiction writing  also functions to entertain, a new audience in history.

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