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The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow

by Mrs Oliphant
Persephone book no:

88 89 90

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155790

Mrs Oliphant (1828-97), one of the outstanding writers of the nineteenth century, was in her time as well-known as Dickens, George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell: ‘the exemplary woman of letters’ is how the literary critic Queenie Leavis described the author of Persephone Book No. 89, The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow. And the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald's claim was that ‘Mrs Oliphant is at her very best in novellas and short stories.’ She suggested that two of them, The Mystery of Mrs Blencarrow (1890) and Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond (1886), might well be reprinted together, which is what we have now done, and pointed out that the strongest theme running through all the books is that of the helpless man and the strong woman.

Both novellas are about women left on their own to run their own households. In one, Penelope Fitzgerald continues, ‘Mrs Blencarrow, a conventional widow with a large estate, falls in love with her coarse-mannered steward, and in the other the wife, Mrs Lycett-Landon, finds out that her husband has made a bigamous marriage. She has the other woman's address and resolutely sets out for the distant suburb, the street, the house. What follows is “tragifarce”, as the author calls it, “the most terrible of all,” and she risks a conclusion that dies away into silence and echoes.’

In one respect Mrs Oliphant's subjects were ‘the staples of Victorian women's fiction – money, wills, marriages, church and chapel, disgraceful relatives, family power struggles, quarrels, deathbeds, ghosts.’  Yet, writes Dr Merryn Williams, who published a critical biography of Mrs Oliphant and has now written the Persephone Afterword for us: ‘The two novellas in this volume… written in the late 1880s… are surprisingly un-Victorian. Each ends, not with a marriage as is usual, but with the break-up of a marriage. Each is about the terribly destructive effects of middle-aged passion.’ As Mrs Oliphant herself said about the husband in Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond, Mr Lycett-Landon: ‘It seems as if they [men] must break out – as if common life and duty become insupportable.’ And as JM Barrie wrote of this novella, ‘It is as terrible and grim a picture of a man tired of fifty years of respectability as was ever written’, adding, ‘Mrs Oliphant wrote so many short stories that she forgot their names and what they were about, but readers, I think, will not soon forget this one’, written by a woman who ‘was of an intellect so alert that one wondered she ever fell asleep.’

Also available as a (free) e-book.


A printed velveteen designed by Lewis F Day sold by Liberty's in 1888.

Picture Caption

John Brown and Queen Victoria

Read What Readers Say

Glasgow Herald

In 1887 Margaret Oliphant published Queen Eleanor And Fair Rosamond and three years later ‘The Mystery Of Mrs Blencarrow’. Although the former contains fictionalised elements of Mrs Oliphant’s own life – Mr Lycett-Lyndon’s midlife crisis and abandonment of his family mirror events in the writer’s own extended family – both novellas are imaginative works of considerable power on the subject of unsuitable marriages. Mrs Oliphant’s achievement in both of these fast-paced and involving stories is to subvert the reader’s expectations. Each ends, unusually in Victorian storytelling, not with a happy marriage but with the unravelling of a marriage and the avoidance of punishment (at least in terms of public censure) on the part of the stories’ wrongdoers. Part of these novellas’ impact is the manner in which they deliver an unexpected (but unexpectedly satisfying) ending within narrative structures and moral codes which appear wholly conventional. This is familiar 19th-century potboiler stuff. That it still succeeds so well is an indication of the superiority of Victorian publishing over today’s reality TV. If Persephone has taken a risk in reissuing these two forgotten stories by an author who, today, is mostly unread, it is that modern readers will resist Mrs Oliphant’s cliffhanger style and the overwrought emotions which are central to stories of this kind. For those able to overcome these minor hurdles, this double reissue offers a rich and exhilarating reading experience.’

Categories: Love Story Victoriana

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