The Nineteenth-Century Book Club: Margaret Oliphant, Kirsteen (1890)

In the last meeting of the Nineteenth-Century Book Club, we talked about one of Margaret Oliphant’s wonderful novels, Hester. Today, it’s the turn of another of her works, Kirsteen (1890). Like Hester, Kirsteen focusses on a young woman, and her life beyond the boundaries of her home, and out in the public space. It also happens to be one of the novels that I researched for my thesis, and one that I have since published on (funnily enough, Hester was involved in the same article – strange, that)!

Kirsteen Douglas is a young, enterprising woman, who escapes the shackles of her controlling father, whose sole concern is arranging his daughter’s marriage to a well-meaning, but much older man. Unknown to her father, Kirsteen is already (and secretly) betrothed to a young man, Ronald, who leaves to be a soldier before their marriage can take place. Faced with the prospect of remaining with her domineering father, or leaving to forge her independence, Kirsteen chooses to leave her home in Scotland, and head to London to become a dressmaker. Though Oliphant is sometimes criticised for her seeming reluctance to reconcile with the growing feminist movement of the late nineteenth century, Kirsteen reveals her radical side. Not only does Kirsteen make the important decision to defy her father’s restrictive rules and home environment, she travels, alone, to London, to stay with housekeeper Marg’ret’s sister, Miss Jean, where she will join her as a dressmaker, using her skill as a needlewoman to support herself.

In Kirsteen, Oliphant creates an enterprising young woman, who sees dressmaking not as a means to an end, but as the beginning of a career. Kirsteen turns her back on a restrictive home life, to forge a new identity as a talented businesswoman. Importantly, she chooses the moniker, ‘Miss Kirsteen’, to extricate herself from her father’s domineering domestic environment, and to forge her new, public role. Ronald’s premature death means that Kirsteen never marries. In turn, she never takes on a new name as a married woman. Instead, she is free to embody her businesswoman identity for the remainder of her career, and indeed, life.

Kirsteen is, in my humble opinion, one of Oliphant’s most important (and all-round wonderful) novels. If you haven’t yet read anything of hers, then I highly recommend it!

If you would like to support an independent businesswoman, and you require some editing, proofreading, or transcription, then look no further – here I am! See you next time.

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