Review of Margaret Oliphant’s Young Musgrave

Young Musgrave reprint cover
Young Musgrave — the Classic Reprint Series edition

[Unsigned] Review of Young Musgrave, by Margaret Oliphant, The Athenaeum (15 December 1877): 769-70.

[NOTE: Blind wrote this review while in the early stages of writing her own novel, Tarantella (1885), so it holds special interest. She begins by blaming the marketplace for the degraded quality of current fiction, noting that while Young Musgrave “contains many elements of a first-rate novel,” its many failures are a symptom–of “a morbid taste of our time, in which the torpid imagination of the novel-reader must be incessantly stimulated by all sorts of ingenious mystifications.” The author of nearly 100 novels (Young Musgrave was her 49th), Oliphant was primarily a domestic realist, and Blind argues that in contrast to the absurdities of the plot, the actual interest of Young Musgrave depends on Oliphant’s “nice discrimination of character,” sympathetic insight into childhood, genuine human emotion, and “fine descriptive power.” Ideologically, Blind and Oliphant were radically at odds. Oliphant’s antifeminist pronouncements ranged from her 1866 reference to J.S. Mill’s “mad notion” of the franchise for women to her 1896 review of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which complains of the “grossness, indecency and horror” of a novel that “depicts women as agents of corruption” and amounts to an “assault on the stronghold of marriage.”[1] Blind herself was an admirer of Hardy’s novels, and she wrote to him and socialized with him at Society of Authors dinners in the 1890s.]

Young Musgrave contains many elements of a first-rate novel. Had Mrs. Oliphant only been content to tell a simple story instead of straining her inventive faculties to the utmost in order to construct a far-fetched, intricate plot, intended to keep the reader on the tip-top of expectation to the end of the third volume, her present book would be a truly charming work of fiction. Mrs. Oliphant, no doubt, defers to a morbid taste of our time, in which the torpid imagination of the novel reader must be incessantly stimulated by all sorts of ingenious mystifications. Such a reader cares nothing, or next to nothing, for delineation of character, analysis of passion, or beauty of style; all he wants is a plot so cunningly contrived as to keep his curiosity continually on the strain. What a pity that Mrs. Oliphant should try to enhance the interest of her story by the melodramatic horror of a murder and a madman! And she is not even at home in murder and madness. She does not take, like Wilkie Collins or Miss Braddon, a heartfelt interest in triumphantly baffling the reader’s curiosity, but she throws in her mystery like a sop to appease the public.

What a pity that Mrs. Oliphant should try to enhance the interest of her story by the melodramatic horror of a murder and a madman!

Although many of the characters, such as Mary, the maiden aunt, Mr. Pennithorne, the mild country parson, old ‘Lizabeth Bampfylde and her vagrant son, are admirably delineated, yet it is in her children that Mrs. Oliphant achieves her greatest triumph. The beautiful dark-eyed little girl is especially delicious. Her courage, devotion, and unselfishness blend in the most natural manner with her fantastic mingling of fairy lore and reality.

In contrast with the tender beauty of the children are the wild Bampfyldes, the stock from which they spring on the mother’s side. Old “Lizabeth Bampfylde and her handsome son, living far off on the fells, are the picturesque element of the story. Its weak part is the shadowy madman, ‘Lizabeth’s eldest son. He is at the bottom of the murder of which John Musgrave is falsely accused, yet we never even learn whether he was sane or mad at the time of his committing the crime, nor what was hit motive, if he had any. Equally inexplicable is John Musgrave’s sacrifice of everything a man holds dear for the sake of a lunatic; and even the mother’s unjust determination to screen her crazy son at the expense of the happiness of her other children is very improbable. We have the less compunction in revealing as much of the plot as may be gleaned from the above remarks, that the interest of the story in no way depends upon it; it depends, on the contrary, on the author’s nice discrimination of character, sympathetic insight into child-life, true sentiment, and fine descriptive power. She has what Carlyle calls the faculty of “seeing.” In a few words sometimes she not only renders the outer aspect of nature, but its inmost expression, making you feel the landscape as well as see it. Some of her descriptions rise to the heights of poetry, as may be proved by the following quotation:–

     At length, all at once, the hills seemed to clear away from the sky, opening up on either side, and straight before them, hanging low, like a signal of trouble, a late-risen and waning moon, that seemed thrust forward out into the air, and hanging from the sky, appeared in the luminous but mournful heaven in front of them. There is always something more or less baleful and troublous in this sudden apparition, so late and out of date, of a waning moon; the oil seems low in the lamp, the light ready to be extinguished, the flame quivering in the socket. Between them and the sky stood a long, low cottage, rambling and extensive, with a rough, grey stone wall built round it, upon which the pal moonlight shone. Long before they reached it, as soon as their steps could be audible, the mingled baying and howling of a dog was heard, rising doleful and ominous in the silence; and from under the roof, which was half rough thatch and half the coarse tile used for labourers’ cottages, a light strangely red against the radiance of the moon flickered with a livid glare. A strange, black silhouette of a house it was, with the low moonlight full upon it, showing here and there in a ghostly full white upon a bit of wall or roof, and contrasting with the red in the window; it made  mystic sort of conclusion to the journey. Bampfylde directed his steps towards it without a word. He knocked a stroke or two on the door, which seemed to echo over all the country and up to the mountain-tops in their great stillness. ‘We are at home, now,’ he said.”

[1]. For Oliphant’s statement about Mill, see The Autobiography and Letters, 211. For her comments on Jude the Obscure, see “The Anti-Marriage League,” Blackwood’s Magazine 159 (January 1896): 138, 141.