Margaret Oliphant: Hester


Margaret Oliphant was a contemporary of George Eliot and the Brontës, though she never had their success, in spite of her output – nearly 100 novels, 50 short stories, 25 pieces of non-fiction and over 300 articles. She may not have Eliot’s intellectual heft or the Brontës’ edginess, but Hester is a novel that deserves more readers. It deals with the unusual subject of a woman who rescued a near-bankrupt bank and ran it successfully for thirty years.  Now she has retired and handed over the management of the bank to her two nephews, the stolid Harry and the intelligent, cynical Edward.  Edward is her favourite, and she never knows the resentment under his obliging exterior – resentment at being tied to an old woman’s apron-strings, at the weight of a respectable name and a conservative establishment when he dreams of daring piratical exploits in the stockmarket.

Many people depend on Catherine Vernon’s generosity: the two nephews given such a start in life, and numerous other poor relations who live at Catherine’s expense without an ounce of gratitude:

Catherine Vernon, according to their picture of her, was a woman, who, being richer than they, helped them all with an ostentatious benevolence, which was her justification for humiliating them whenever she had a chance, and treating them as her inferiors and pensioners.  58

The thing is that Catherine’s benevolence is not ostentatious. She simply does what she thinks is right, and though she knows perfectly well how spitefully her relations speak of her, she never retaliates.  In fact, she’s amused by their duplicity. The one person who gets under her skin is Hester, the daughter of her cousin John, the one who almost ruined the bank by his extravagance and skipped the country to avoid the consequences. Hester, recently returned from the continent with her mother after her father’s death, knows nothing of this history. Proud, straightforward and burning with the desire to make something of her life, she clashes with Catherine from the start.

It’s a novel of great psychological insight and compelling psychological drama, with an expertly satirical eye for minor characters. There are the Vernon-Ridgway sisters:

Their necks were long and their noses large, both of which characteristics they held to be  evidences of family and condition. 54

And there’s the cast-iron complacency of Miss Emma Ashton (who plays an unexpected part in the story’s denouement), determined to get an invitation to a dance so that she can meet eligible young men:

“People always exert themselves to get invitations for girls. It is like helping young men on in business. We cannot go and make acquaintances for ourselves as young men go and set up offices, but we must have our chance, you know, as well. Of course,” said Emma in her deliberate way, “it is for everybody’s advantage that we should have our chance as well as the men.” 230

How true – but not the sort of thing a well-brought up young woman should ever admit.

A knowing, touching and very enjoyable book. Catherine, Hester, Edward, Harry and Emma will stay with you long after the story comes to an end.





9 thoughts on “Margaret Oliphant: Hester

  1. Thanks Gert. She sounds like an interesting and observant author, a kindred spirit for the Gerts.

    My neck is not long, nor my nose large, both of which must indicate a lesser condition. But that’s OK — I don’t think that I would have done well in those earlier eras.

      1. Sounds like good fortune, to have escaped their notice.

        Emily Dickinson said it best: “I’m Nobody. Who are you?/ Are you Nobody too? /Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!/ They’d banish us you know. // How dreary to be somebody/How public like a frog/ To tell your name the livelong day/ To an admiring Bog!”

        They often put that in poetry collections for children, despite its subversive message.

  2. Oliphant’s name has cropped up a few times recently – she was mentioned on an episode of the Backlisted podcast in connection with Virago, I think. Anyway, it’s great to see you covering her as well. I must check her out – she sounds very perceptive.

  3. I think the Oliphants are prominent in the Ballet world in Canada. In fact Betty Oliphant was a co-founder of the National Ballet School of Canada. You got to love those strong women.

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