The Library Window by Margaret Oliphant

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I had not heard of Margaret Oliphant before I delved into The Library Window and the thoughts or imaginings of a young woman who sits each day at her window gazing across the street to what some say is a window and some say is not. I’m told that Oliphant was a prolific writer in the nineteenth century and wrote to earn enough to raise a family on her own.

The story traces the young woman’s fixation with the window in which she begins to make out one feature after another until she sees the figure of a man, a vision that no older person is able to see. Pen portraits of a small number of older folk, most of whom we glimpse in their narrow role of disturbing and disbelieving the young woman, have been supplied by the author. They are cast as personae, representations of a point of view. There is Lady Carnbee, the assertive ‘better class’ woman whose opinion is, like Britain itself, master of what it sees and to the devil with evidence, no matter how impartial it may be. There is one male among a bevy of females, whose role is to be fussed over since, being male he is, by virtue of his nature, innately superior. Some sort of an attempt has been made to make Mr Pitmilly memorable – his fussiness gives him some colour, but he is best represented by his insignificant shallowness of thought, expressing what he fails to understand as if he were a spring, gushing with original thought.

“For my part, it is my opinion that there is no window there at all,” he said. “It’s very like the thing that’s called in scienteefic language an optical illusion” (19).

He goes on to link the illusion with a human liver that is not functioning properly.

It is pseudo-science and Sir David Brewster (appearing later in the book) would have reckoned it as such. It is Lady Carnbee, the only other character who appears to have a level of intelligence, who challenges Pitmilly with a question whether the Library is itself an optical illusion.

Since 1896 some commentators have argued that The Library Window reveals the tale of a mentally frail young woman, whose urge to compete on equal grounds with males in the authorship stakes, is denied by the rigorous mores of Victorian society. I see no evidence to support such a view. Its source lies, I suspect, in the feminist movement that surfaced something like seventy years after the book was published. It’s possible that a young woman might find a tingle or two in a relationship that never was with a young stranger who is about as remote as a stranger may be. The probability is heightened when the only man she has had any dealings with is the effete Mr Pitmilly, not the tingly sort I would have thought.

The emphasis is not on the folk (other than the young woman) except as tools to achieve the writer’s purpose i.e. to alienate the young from the older characters, and portray the young woman as mentally unstable. What we have come to view as ‘types’ in much Victorian fiction are on display here, as is the reality of life that Victorian writers managed to not see. Oliphant is a woman of her times, a writer of little significance, and I’m left puzzled why Broadview Press bothered to disinter her writing. The saving grace is to be found in some of the patchy supporting material at the close of the story.  

In the light of what we now know about the anatomy of the eye and the way in which it functions, we should be struck by the excellence of Sir David Brewster’s views on the organ’s functionality and his speculations about how one comes to misperceive objects that, to a healthy mind, are just not there. It is a groping explanation of one type of misapprehension. He has one glorious statement when speaking about an eye.

“This wonderful organ may be considered as the sentinel which guards the pass between the worlds of matter and of spirit, and through which all their communications are interchanged” (63).

Brewster provides an example of the best Victorian scientific writing.

If Brewster is admirable, Margaret Oliphant’s “Scotland and Her Accusers” misses the mark for me. She identifies two Scottish types, I think! It’s difficult to raise the energy to interpret what it is she’s in a snit about. Confused as she appears in the Scotland article, she is astute and observant when she writes about Charlotte Bronte and her sisters. She exhibits a pleasure in the overly long sentence, something Victorian writers were prone to, but her sentences convey sensitive and acute observations on the plight of women in her own society. Her empty old darlings in The Library Window, I suspect, are Oliphant’s way of commenting.

Jane Ellen Panton’s article, or perhaps excerpt from a book, is daunting. I think it is a description of what an obsessive woman would change in a room into which she is peering (as if through a window perhaps). The style is convoluted as one would expect. To the male reader it is a purgatorial punishment, the reader seeing his only release from perdition in the slowly approaching book’s back cover. E.J. Tilt’s views on the right management of pre-menstrual girls is something I dream about reading. The article’s best quality is its brevity. Articles by Stanley Hall and Oliphant herself are readable and also able works, and these lead into a series of nineteenth century photographs that have no discernible purpose.

I support the idea that the young woman is undergoing mental stress. I’ve sheeted its cause to the older adults in the tale. Because people can make connections between two or more ideas, no matter how rational or bizarre, I can support a view that connections could be made between a text and the late Victorian idea of ‘adolescent insanity’, whatever that might be. However, to believe that such connections are extant in this case is wishful thinking, possibly stemming from a deep desire to end one’s own torment over such a vexing young woman. (There, at no charge, is a connection of my own). There is another argument that the woman is sexually repressed. That idea has been given no credibility in this review since there are no grounds to support or deny any such claim.

A woman who has slipped into such a fragile state as to require treatment for insanity is not a woman who can make a judgment in these terms:

There was not a soul to be seen, up or down, from the Abbey to the West Port: and the trees stood like ghosts, and the silence was terrible, and everything as clear as day.  You don’t know what silence is till you find it in the light like that, not morning but night, no sunrising, no shadow, but everything as clear as day (58).

That I have levelled some trenchant criticisms at various aspects of this book is true. Some other reader, especially a female, may find something more worthy than I was able to. I could not enjoy The Library Window as a story because the older characters kept on blurring my vision. I think the young woman descended into a search for a spiritual male to lean on, one who might ease the pressure the old folk were carelessly inflicting on her. The alternative for her is to make her real feelings known and be classified by some ignorant authority figure as insane.

This is a book that cannot do other than tantalise its reading public.

The Library Window

(2019)

By Margaret Oliphant

Broadview Press

ISBN: 978-1-55481-418-3

108pp; $27.99

To order a copy of Library Window  at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here  or visit www.footprint.com.au

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

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