Posted on | February 26, 2011 | 9 Comments
Endpapers taken from a printed velveteen designed by LF Day for Thomas Wardle & Co, sold by
Liberty’s in 1888 © Victoria and Albert Museum
The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow by Mrs Oliphant is one of the more recent additions to the Persephone Books catalogue, published last Autumn. The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow comprises of two novellas, the title story and Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond, both of which were published in the late Nineteenth Century (the late 1880s, just like the endpapers). Mrs Oilphant was of Scottish descent and a prolific writer, writing more than 120 works and was ‘in her time as well-known as Dickens, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell’ [from the Persephone Books website]. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald considered Mrs Oliphant to be ‘at her very best in novellas and short stories’ and suggested these two to be reprinted together.
Rather an obscure writer now, Oliphant was regarded as an un-Victorian writer in her time and the seeming modernity of these novellas reflect that. Both seemed ahead of their time in certain respects and not so old-fashioned or irrelevant now, or, certainly in the case of Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond. Thematically similar, each concern women trapped by convention, by the laws of society and reputation. Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon (Queen Eleanor) are middle-aged women restricted by their respectability, in fear of a specific scandal affecting their reputation and the reputations and future prospects of their children. Mrs Blencarrow is loosely modelled on Queen Victoria and the whispered scandal of she and her groom, John Brown (some of you may know the film Mrs Brown with Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly) and the title Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond is an allusion to a famous 12th Century legend of Henry II. The mystery surrounding Mrs Blencarrow also reminded me of a subplot of one of the more widely-read Jane Austen novels, which had me immediately rereading another Austen.
The notion of a woman’s respectability is, of course, infuriating. I found it frustrating to read about women who were subject to decisions of their husbands or their brothers (and their fathers, in the case of Milly Lycett-Landon); moreover, the condescending way that loving son Horace Lycett-Landon spoke to his mother enraged me. I wrote above that The Mystery of Blencarrow was in some ways modern and it did possess a timeless quality as well as being as relevant in some cultures today as it was then. Now, most women -widowed or otherwise- can choose to marry whomever they wish and when a marriage breaks down they are not held solely accountable; other women, less fortunate, however, are still held to these out-dated societal conventions.
What I find interesting about Mrs Oliphant is her own story: surrounded by tragedy and widowed early, she was the sole breadwinner for her children and for her undependable siblings. Much like the main women in these novellas, Mrs Oliphant provided for her children, who were her first concern. It is fitting that she writes about women who are put in control of their family’s destiny while still being restricted by conventions; I find it fascinating to consider whether Mrs Oliphant felt helpless or whether the novellas are purely imagination. Queen Victoria was the figurehead of an Empire and even she was subject to scandal, gossip and the trappings of respectability.
This was by no means by favourite Persephone but I did enjoy the novellas. The fear of Mrs Blencarrow and Mrs Lycett-Landon that scandal would taint their children was convincing; sometimes motherhood can be as limiting as convention in that desperate need to prevent their offspring from harm.
Brazen it out! A woman so dignified, so proud, so self-possessed; a princess in her way, a queen-mother. As the afternoon went on, her strength failed a little; she began to breathe more quickly, to change colour instantaneously from red to pale. Anxiety crept into the clear, too clear eyes. She looked about her by turns with a searching look, as if expecting someone to appear and change everything. When the visitors’ carriages came to take them away, the sound of the wheels startled her.
‘I thought it might be your uncles coming back,’ she said to Emmy, who always watched her with wistful eyes.
It was rather a relief to them all when the father went away again. They did not say so indeed in so many words, still keeping up the amiable domestic fiction that the house was not at all like itself when papa was away. But as a matter of fact there could be little doubt that the atmosphere was clear after he was gone. A certain sulphurous sense of something volcanic in the air, the alarm of a possible explosion, or at least of the heat and mutterings that precede storms, departed with him. He himself looked brighter when he went away.