Sunday 31 August 2014

Review: The Marriage of Elinor, Margaret Oliphant (1892)

A Victorian wedding

My second foray into Mrs Oliphant has been to read the 1892 The Marriage of Elinor – a full-length novel about a woman who marries the wrong man. The wilful Elinor marries notorious gambler Philip Compton against the advice of all who love her, particularly her long-suffering mother and ever loyal (and ever ignored) distant cousin John, with the novel tracing the course of her marriage, from engagement to wedding to estrangement and reconciliation. 

For general readers: In the realistic world of Oliphant, inconvenient spouses don’t tend to die in time for the closing chapter and moral choices aren’t always clean cut so expect a novel which feels closer to life than fiction and is painstakingly concerned with the minutiae of human motivations. Elinor’s trials are entirely relatable, both as a love-struck young woman and as a mother in her forties terrified about the reaction of her teenage son to finding out his father is still living. But what really makes the novel is the strength of the characters on the periphery of her story – Elinor’s mother Mrs Dennistoun and her cousin John Tatham.

Both these characters have a rough time of it – both love Elinor and see her suffer, while Mrs Dennistoun fears being viewed as an interfering mother and mother-in-law and is left lonely at the marriage of her only daughter, and John represses his romantic feelings for his cousin and faces losing her and her son all over again as it were with the reappearance of the errant husband. And, compellingly, both never express their feelings to Elinor, giving the novel at times a real pathos and poignancy.

The familial themes the novel deals with and humanity of its characters make the novel feel highly relevant (even if marrying the wrong man today can be more easily remedied!) and what The Marriage of Elinor lacks in specific dramatic incident, it more than makes up for in terms of human interest. 

For students: There’s obviously a lot here for students looking at marital breakdown in the nineteenth century and its implications – social and financial. But there’s much more besides. Elinor’s pregnancy - another pregnancy not made all that apparent to readers until after the fact - is a key factor in the crisis of her marriage, and is worthy of closer attention.

Meanwhile Elinor’s appearance as a witness in a court case displays many of the tropes covered off in Women in the Witness Box series, with Elinor’s ability to speak an untruth truthfully skewing the trial, having a drastic impact on her domestic life at two important junctures in her life and providing the context for the final lines of the novel, when she asks John if she has done the ‘right’ thing.

Elinor’s son is also an interesting character – with references to his grammar schooling sitting neatly with the kind of educational environments described in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, which I reviewed earlier in the year.

Any student studying Victorian attitudes to marriage would do well to include The Marriage of Elinor as a lesser-known example.

Which lesser-known nineteenth-century novel should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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