The Nineteenth-Century Book Club: Margaret Oliphant, Hester (1883)

Today, we will allow Elizabeth Gaskell to take a well-earned break, and instead delve into a novel by the equally wonderful, though often underrated, Margaret Oliphant. This novel is, in my humble opinion, one of her best (and she wrote a lot). Again, I must admit to my bias before we begin. I researched Oliphant for my thesis, so I love her as much as I love Gaskell. I won’t even pretend to hide it.

It has been argued that Oliphant is underrated as a nineteenth-century woman writer because of her sheer volume of work. Over the course of her writing career, she completed in the range of three hundred book reviews and articles, more than fifty short stories, twenty-five works of non-fiction, and ninety-eight novels. Though she created such a vast body of work, much of Oliphant’s output is now difficult to find. Fortunately, every now and again a discerning publisher will decide to reissue an edition from her back-catalogue, and we are blessed with her greatness once more (see, my bias is not hidden).

Of all of Oliphant’s novels, one of the most popular is Hester. Published in 1883, towards the final decade of Oliphant’s writing career, Hester charts the life of the eponymous young woman, Hester Vernon, and her relationship with her much older cousin, Catherine Vernon. When Hester’s father ruins the family bank, abandoning his family in the process, it is down to Catherine to save the business. The novel follows the development of the fraught relationship between the two women, who eventually have to learn to live and work together if the bank is to be saved from ruin.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is Oliphant’s creation of Catherine Vernon as a formidable businesswoman, tasked with saving her family’s business from the inept and profligate men who lead it to the brink of ruin. Alongside this is Hester’s development as she grows from a child into a young woman, increasingly uncomfortable with the world, and the people, around her. Through the years, Oliphant has been criticised for her apparent lack of concern for women’s role in society. In recent times, however, this view has shifted. In my view, it is a reconsideration of her novels like Hester that have helped push this shift. As a central female character, Catherine blends domestic responsibility (a domestic environment filled with petty familial rivalry and jealousy) with running a business. She is both public and private. Nurturing and business-like.

In Hester, Oliphant provides a psychologically drawn portrait of individuals as they grapple with their tensions, resentments and jealousies. For me, it is an underrated piece of work which explores the possibilities for the domestic ‘businesswoman’. If you have never read any of Oliphant’s writing, then I can highly recommend Hester as a starting point. I must add, though, I haven’t exactly been chronological. There are lots of other wonderful Oliphant novels published much earlier, so take your pick! Next week, we stick with Oliphant, as we explore another businesswoman in Kirsteen.

If you like the idea of doing your bit for a small business owner (and a woman at that!) then remember, I’m here to help with editing, proofreading and transcription. See you next week.

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