Sunday, April 6, 2014

A subversive Scottish heroine

Kirsteen, Margaret Oliphant

I have only read a few of Margaret Oliphant's ninety novels, the "Chronicles of Carlingford," for which she's probably best known, and The Curate in Charge. I've enjoyed them, particularly Miss Marjoribanks and The Perpetual Curate, though I found Salem Chapel a bit dreary. None of them prepared me for this story, though, with its independent and really subversive heroine.  It is also the first of her books that I've read to be set in her native Scotland, and it's thick with Highland Scots dialogue.

The subtitle of this book is "The Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years Ago."  Published in 1890, it opens in 1814, just as the Napoleonic Wars are ending.  Kirsteen, the title character, a young woman of twenty, is the third of four daughters of the Laird of Drumcarro.  His small estate in Argyllshire is a constant reminder of how far the once-powerful Douglas family has fallen over the years, particularly since Culloden.  Neil Douglas is counting on his seven sons to rebuild the family's fortune, and with it their proper place in Scotland.  Everything he can wring from the estate goes to them.  As the story opens, the fifth, Robbie, is being sent out to India to join his brothers, while the two youngest wait their turns.  The daughters are left to themselves, and to the care of their mother, worn out with constant pregnancies and her martinet of a husband.  Drumcarro considers his daughters just a drag on the family's resources, costing him money that should go to the boys. His eldest daughter Anne escaped this neglect and her father's tyranny by eloping with a young doctor.  Her enraged father has cast her out of the family, forbidding anyone even to mention her name.  Finally his cousin Miss Eelen Douglas convinces him that his daughters must be introduced into society, if they are ever to find husbands who will take them off his hands.

Aunt Eelen, a comfortable spinster, escorts the two oldest girls, Mary and Kirsteen, to a ball in Glasgow. There Kirsteen meets a contemporary of her father's, John Campbell of Glendochart.  He is immediately drawn to the young woman and begins visiting Drumcarro regularly, though Kirsteen has no idea that he is courting her.  Her heart is already given to another, though secretly.  When her father informs her that she will marry Glendochart, threatening her with blows and beatings if she refuses, she is afraid she will be forced to yield.  Her only option is to leave home, to run away, even if it means being cast out in her turn.  She decides to go to London, to seek her fortune.

Her story is quite an adventure, as she walks across the moors to Glasgow, to catch the coach to London.  Arriving dazed and exhausted in the great city, larger than she could ever have imagined, she goes to the sister of the family's devoted housekeeper Marg'ret (whose small savings funded her flight).  Miss Jean is a successful dressmaker, who is at first reluctant to take a lady, one of the great Douglas family, into business.  But Kirsteen talks her way in, and she soon proves to have a gift for design.  As she settles in to her work and her new home, the story shifts back to Drumcarro, where her older sister Mary takes a leaf from Charlotte Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The third sister, Jeanie, the beauty of the family, will have her own adventures, more along the lines of the Brontës than Jane Austen.

There is so much to enjoy in this book, starting with the heroine.  Kirsteen is young and naive, but also strong and quick to learn.  Like many of Margaret Oliphant's heroines, she has to care for the more feckless members of her family, starting with her afflicted mother.  But in contrast to her mother, she also has staunch role models in her Aunt Eelen, the local dressmaker Miss MacNab, her surrogate mother Marg'ret, and Miss Jean.  All are independent and self-reliant, none of them rich but each content in her own way. I love stories about dress-making businesses, second only to tea-shops.  I was reminded of "The House of Eliott," as well as Susanna's shop in Eva Ibbotson's Madensky Square.  I also enjoyed the Highland setting, though I was sometimes a bit puzzled by the dialogue, and Regency London as well.  I couldn't help imagining one of Georgette Heyer's characters driving up to Miss Jean's door, to order a new gown.  (The author, who was born in 1828, is rather dismissive of the fashions of 1814, though to my eyes they look more comfortable than the layered outfits of the 1890s.)

It is a shame that so few of Margaret Oliphant's books are still in print, though they are available as e-texts.  The introduction to this book mentions several other titles, and I think I'll look for The Ladies Lindores next.  It's about a family who suddenly inherits a fortune. Knowing Margaret Oliphant, I'm sure complications arise.


  1. Project Gutenberg, the go-to for out of print e-books.....they have 26 of her books, of which I've now downloaded two. Kirsteen is not there though

  2. Anon., PG is the first place I check, and my e-reader is full of their texts, especially 19th-century women writers like Oliphant.

  3. Oh, I need to read this. I loved Miss Marjoribanks -- such fun.

  4. I've been wanting to read something by Margaret Oliphant for years but have never got round to it. Do the Chronicles of Carlingford need to be read in order or can you start anywhere, do you think?

  5. Audra, isn't Miss Marjoribanks great? She was my introduction to Oliphant. This one isn't as light-hearted.

    Helen, I don't think they need to be read in order. Oliphant isn't consistent with the backstories from book to book - and I think the later stories are stronger. But I also think Salem Chapel is not the best place to start.

  6. Never heard of this author! I'm always on the lookout for public-domain authors I can check out on Gutenberg. They do have such a great selection -- it's one of my favorite things about having an ereader.

  7. Jenny, that's pretty much why I got an e-reader, to take advantage of all the older books available again. Miss Marjoribanks is a great place to start with Oliphant - she's pretty irresistible.

  8. I think I actually own a copy of Miss Majoribanks, but have never cracked it open!
    I can't imagine writing 90 books - and she didn't even have ghost writers like James Patterson does.
    I think Kirsteen sounds wonderful with its strong female characters.

  9. I have a copy of this tucked away somewhere and I'm going to pull it out, because you make it sound wonderful. And much less intimidating that the Chronicles

  10. Anbolyn, Margaret Oliphant is really good on strong female characters - and Miss Marjoribanks is a perfect example :)

    Jane, Kirsteen's loving care for her mother may resonate with you, as it did for me.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!