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.

December 23, 2016

December 23, 1888

A Spectator book review of a recent biography is titled: Laurence Oliphant: oddest of Victorian oddballs and subtitled "Casey brilliantly resurrects this adventurer, diplomat, mystic and spy who impressed Queen Victoria with his ability to commune with fairies." Just so you know the ball-park.

THE BOOK in question: The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant: Victorian Pilgrim and Prophet (2015) was written by Bart Casey.

The reviewer suggests "double" may be an understatement.

.. I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant
[August 3. 1829  to December 23, 1888)] — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy... when he died, aged 59, in 1888 ....
The difficulty with Oliphant is that his entire life was a mosaic of improbable adventures. Should one begin in 1870 when, as a war correspondent for the Times, he dined with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in order to garner information on hostilities between Prussia and France, before touring the battlefields of the Loire in a covered coach as cannonballs burst overhead? Or perhaps back in 1855, in Chechnya, when Oliphant (ostensibly on a mission to convince the Chechens to side with the British and Turks against the Russians) was mistaken by a Turkish commander for a serving officer, and charged with co-ordinating 250 men to set up an artillery battery yards from the Russian frontline on a night-time raid? (Oliphant later reported to his mother that he’d performed this task with ‘a pretty brisk shower of missiles flying about’.)

Or... our obituarist might start with an account of Oliphant’s work trying to break the monopoly of the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable company. For nearly 20 years, a race to bridge the two-week information delay between Europe and North America had been a source of intense financial speculation. Oliphant wanted in on all this, and attempted to convince the Canadian government that the incumbent Anglo-American Cable Company was breaking competition law. His motive? To finance the closed religious society that he had joined, which believed that angels and fairies could be reached by means of deep meditative breathing.

Queen Victoria recorded in her journal how struck she was by Oliphant’s cleverness, and by his interesting ideas on religion after she was presented with a copy of his Sympneumata, a book about the cosmo-sexual union of man and woman that had been ‘dictated’ to Oliphant by his dead wife Alice le Strange.

Oliphant is probably remembered today .... as a proto-Zionist, and streets in Haifa and Jerusalem are named after him. Motivated by a practical concern for Jews suffering persecution in eastern Europe rather than by any ideological view, he won financial backing for the purchase of land in Palestine. He and his wife founded a commune there, while continuing to press for further migration of Jews to the Holy Land.

Again, this was just one facet of a life that included being an MP, practising at the bar and writing a series of highly successful books, including the satirical novel Piccadilly. The title of Casey’s biography (a quotation from Oliphant himself — ‘Most people are more or less conscious of leading a sort of double life, an outside one and an inside one’), is arguably unfortunate, given the multiple nature of the narrative. But we trip along breezily enough, with Casey delightfully describing the intricacies of fairy communication and how to achieve sexual union with ethereal beings.

There were many oddball Victorians, and it’s easy to agree with John Stuart Mill that ‘the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained’. It was a time ...when developments in electricity and radio encouraged theories about a science of celestial communication, leading to the craze of spiritualism that helped shape Oliphant’s views. At the same time, society was obsessed by sex — sublimated into a kind of prudish-prurient schizophrenia — which also saturated Oliphant’s writing. (For years he and his wife abstained from sex, believing that this was the best way to achieve ‘true’ sexual togetherness.)

This excerpt below from one of Oliphant's novels does nothing to bolster a view of Oliphant as a good burgher.

Piccadilly; a fragment of contemporary biography, by Laurence Oliphant (1870) includes this description of the hero:

I am endowed with a somewhat remarkable faculty, which I have not been in the habit of alluding to, partly because my friends think me ridiculous if I do, and partly because I never could see any use in it, but I do nevertheless possess the power of seeing in the dark. Not after the manner of cats—the objects which actually exist — but images which sometimes appear as the condensations of a white misty-looking substance, and sometimes take a distinctly bright luminous appearance. As I gaze into absolute darkness, I first see a cloud, which gradually seems to solidify into a shape, either of an animal or some definite object. In the case of the more brilliant image, the appearance is immediate and evanescent. It comes and goes like a flash, and the subject is generally significant and beautiful. Perhaps some of my readers may be familiar with this phenomenon, and may account for it as being the result of what they call imagination, which is only putting the difficulty one step back; or may adopt the wiser course which I have followed, and not endeavour to account for it at all.

Oliphant's book is prefaced with a quote--

Some make love in poetry
And some in --Piccadilly

(attributed to someone named Praed). Works for me.

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