Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Oliphant, Mrs

Working name of UK writer Margaret Wilson Oliphant (1828-1897) for most of her 100 or so novels; she sometimes wrote anonymously. She began publishing work of fantasy interest with "A Christmas Tale" for Blackwood's Magazine in 1857 (vt "Witcherley Ways: A Christmas Tale" in Tales from Blackwood anth 1879), a story which prefigures her Stories of the Seen and Unseen, the phrase she used as a surtitle on various occasions to mark her Supernatural Fiction. Like most of its successors, "A Christmas Tale" depicts family life as hollowed out by some central absence or deficiency. Her next story – "The Secret Chamber" (1886 Blackwood's, published initially as a Christmas tale and much exp vt The Wizard's Son 1883 US) – follows the same pattern: in the story a decent son obeys a feckless father's instructions to spend the night in a Secret Chamber, where the lad outwits the Ghost of an evil ancestor; in the novel, the son takes over a Scottish estate and manages to thwart the Malign Sleeper his accession has awakened.

The Unseen, for MO, is the land beyond the living; and attempts to deal with the overwhelming poignance of death dominate her career, most significantly in A Beleaguered City, Being a Narrative of Certain Recent Events in the City of Semur, in the Department of the Haute Bourgogne: A Story of the Seen and the Unseen (1879 New Quarterly; 1879 US; exp dated 1880 but 1879 UK). The Frame Story is complex: various witnesses tell of the blaspheming of the citizens of Semur against the Lord, their eviction by the risen dead, the judgement then imposed, and finally the forgiveness. Some subsequent tales – like "The Open Door" (Blackwood's 1882) and Old Lady Mary: A Story of the Seen and Unseen (1884 chap US) – have a similar impact, both stories resolving the obsessional returns of Revenants to the land of the living; but most of MO's further work suffers from a preoccupation with the Afterlife, and her tales of the Little Pilgrim – assembled with other work in A Little Pilgrim in the Unseen (coll dated 1883 but 1882) and The Land of Darkness (coll 1888) – are deeply sentimental. Other stories of Heaven or the supernatural in general – like The Lady's Walk (1883 Longman's Magazine; 1883 US; much exp 1897 UK) and "The Land of Suspense" (Blackwood's 1897) – convey so desperate a sense of Belatedness that they are hard to bear. Only once is there a genuine solace: the Stranger from the Little Pilgrim's Heaven, who visits Earth in A Visitor and His Opinions: A Story of the Seen and Unseen (1893 Blackwood's; 1902 chap US), finds much to admire in mortal life. Generally, however, MO did not; and a sense of thwarted longing impregnates her work. [JC]

other works: The Open Door and The Portrait: Two Stories of the Seen and the Unseen (coll 1885 US); Two Stories of the Seen and Unseen: The Open Door; Old Lady Mary (coll 1885); Stories of the Seen and Unseen (coll 1889 US; with different contents 1902 UK); "Dies Irae": The Story of a Spirit in Prison (1895 chap). Most of MO's best supernatural fiction has been re-sorted in Selected Short Stories of the Supernatural (coll 1985) ed Margaret K Gray and A Beleaguered City and Other Stories (coll 1988) ed Merryn Williams.

further reading: Mrs Oliphant: "A Fiction to Herself": A Literary Life (1995) by Elisabeth Jay.

Margaret Wilson Oliphant


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.