Friday 2 January 2015

Review: Hester, Margaret Oliphant (1873)

A couple of posts back I looked at what literary realism is – and why it mattered so much to the Victorians – using George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Middlemarch as illustrative examples. Margaret Oliphant saw her own writing as much inferior to that of the most famous of nineteenth-century realist novelists, claiming that after her death ‘no one will mention me with the same breath as George Eliot’, but having just finished her novel Hester (1873) I think not only was she wrong, but that this novel ought to be considered one of the very finest examples of psychological realism.

Hester is like many Victorian heroines – poor and without prospects, but clever and attractive – yet, unlike many Victorian novels, the greatest dilemmas the heroine faces aren’t centred on marriageable men, but her complex relationships with other women. There is Catherine Vernon – a businesswoman who has saved the family’s bank, and continues to support her poor relatives (including Hester). Successful and revered, a local celebrity, Catherine faces old age knowing there are none who truly love her, investing all her emotional health in the ‘son’ she has chosen to succeed her in business. Then there is Hester’s mother, Mrs. John Vernon, who is of high importance in the novel, despite her near-constant blindness to the action unfolding around her. Like presumably many Victorian women, her sense of what it means to be a woman and pursuit of an ideal femininity has kept her in ignorance of many things and helpless in the face of her husband’s reckless endangerment of the family business and her later widowhood. Intimidated by her vibrant daughter, nostalgic for the days she lived in luxury and most at home discussing ball dress design or the preparation of strawberry jam, Mrs. John is the kind of character who is usually subject to contempt or criticism in the world of a novel – but this is not the case.

Photograph of Margaret Oliphant
What is extraordinary about the novel is the way in which Oliphant deals with sympathy with all these women, sketching out the inner turmoil of fourteen-year old Hester, brave but thrust suddenly into an unfamiliar social situation, with the corresponding teenage insecurities, sixty-five year old Catherine, called on yet again to be brave and to put aside her own emotional trauma to save the jobs of many men and the money of her own family, and Mrs. John, who years on is just as ignorant as to what the bank clerk meant when he burst into her parlour to saver her from ruin, many years before.

A cast of supporting characters get slightly less attention when it comes to their psychology, but they are wrought with believability and satirical humour. The ‘Vernonry’, where Catherine houses her poor relations is a peculiar world of boredom, gossip, resentment and rivalry. The Ashtons (distant relations of Catherine on her mother’s side) represent a different side of business to the noble pursuit of success for common good Vernon’s (the bank) comes to stand for. Roland Ashton, left alone to make his own fortune, plays the stock market to advance himself independently (in contrast to Hester’s cousins, now partners at the bank, Harry and Edward, who Catherine keeps a close eye on). His sister Emma meanwhile pursues her fortune likewise – plotting to marry with a pragmatic view to her prospects, which is an amusing contrast to many Victorian marriage plots.

The novel moves steadily towards its climax – the crisis of Hester’s young life – but when the shocks come, they aren’t as a consequence of surprise or revelation, but of Hester’s own realisation of the network she is a part of, the inadmissibility of abandoning her ‘post’, like her father did. Pressed to flee – in other words to act out the kind of sensation novel plot Oliphant so disapproved of – Hester knows that she cannot, observing the duty which comes with relationships, to the mother that she loves, but also to Catherine, for whom she has had so much enmity. In other ways Hester learns the same lesson as a character in Eliot – growing up means becoming a realist, and developing an awareness of the interiority of others.

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


  1. To think of all those dusty old Margaret Oliphant books I've missed out on - some being sold for as little as a Canadian dollar or two. What a fool I've been.

    What nineteenth-century novel would I like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Much as I'd like to read your opinions on other Grant Allen novels, may I suggest something by Sir Gilbert Parker? I have no particular work in mind.

    1. Haha - definitely, v foolish!

      Don't worry, Grant Allen is on the list! Will check out Parker too :)