It is hard not to begin an article about Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) without referring to her famous prolificacy, as she produced over 120 works of fiction and non-fiction in her lifetime, making even Anthony Trollope look like a layabout. Oliphant was amongst those early British women writers who managed to make a living from their writing, although in Oliphant’s case, following the death of her husband in 1859, it was more a matter of survival for her and her children. There was a revival of interest in Oliphant’s work, which had fallen into obscurity, towards the end of the 20th century, seeing the republication of a number of her books – OUP’s Oxford World Classics edition of her 1883 novel, Hester, describes Oliphant as “one of the great Victorian novelists.”
The short story The Library Window is one of Margaret Oliphant’s last published works, appearing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in January 1896, and was one of the most popular and frequently reprinted of her stories. The narrator is a young woman – her age is never mentioned but the contrast between her and the older characters is remarked upon frequently and she still lives with her parents but is old enough to show some interest in men or, at least, be expected to – who is staying with her elderly aunt in the fictional Scottish town of St. Rules. The narrator is recuperating from some unnamed malady, “whenever we had anything the matter with us these days, we were sent to St. Rule’s to get up our strength. And this was my case at the time of which I am going to speak”, spending the majority of her time in isolation in a drawing room overlooking the high street, “with my books and my basket of work.”
Across the street, almost directly opposite the window of the drawing room, is a window connected to the old library of the university college. Friends of the protagonist’s aunts are round for tea one day and then begin discussing whether the window is real or if it was merely painted, perhaps having been bricked up to avoid Pitt’s window tax. This captures the imagination of the protagonist who begins spending increasing amounts of time looking out at that window, in which she gradually observes more and more – first the faint outline of a room, then a desk and chair, then a man hard at work all day on his writing. The protagonist’s emotional health gradually wears down as she becomes obsessed with this window and the man she thinks she can see, becoming frustrated that the older people around her cannot see what her young eyes supposedly can.
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The Library Window later featured in a collection with three of Oliphant’s other stories called Stories of the Seen and Unseen and, like that title, the window appears to change its appearance as the light of day alters, sometimes offering its tantalising glimpse into another world, others times appearing as the others claim it to be, not a real window at all. The story is set around Saint John’s Eve (Midsummer Eve), where in the North of Scotland the evenings seem to stretch on forever:
…and the world was full of that strange day which was night, that light without colour, in which everything was so clearly visible, and there were no shadows. ‘It was between the night and the day, when the fairy folk have power’. This was the after-light of the wonderful, long, long summer evening, the light without shadows. It had a spell in it, and sometimes it made me afraid: and all manner of strange thoughts seemed to come in, and I always felt that if only we had a little more vision in our eyes we might see beautiful folk walking about in it, who were not of our world.
The final part of this quote puts me in mind of another book I’ll be talking about on the site soon, The Secret Commonwealth, an essay by a 17th century Scottish minister on the existence of fairies, of “subterranean (and for the most part) invisible people”.
The protagonist can see a reality which the older people around her seem to deny her access to. This can be read as a story about the oppression and constraint of women in the late Victorian-era, the protagonist confined to the home with her needle-work and reading, whilst the window into a library where a man works studiously on his writing tempts her to an increasingly obsessive degree.
While described as a ghost story, The Library Window might be better thought of as a psychological study of a young woman going through a mental breakdown, an example of “female madness”, as it was described by theorists at the time, showing an adolescent insanity and the signs of sexual repression.
This new edition from Broadview Press offers little in the way of analysis of The Library Window other than a brief introduction, however, it does offer interesting background materials to provide historical context to some of its ideas. The first, for example, is a letter (from Letters on Natural Magic) from Sir David Brewster to Sir Walter Scott on the workings of the eye and optical illusions, providing an explanation for phenomena that might otherwise be classed as supernatural and contains the delightful phrase: “This wonderful organ may be considered as the sentinel which guards the pass between the worlds of matter and of spirit”. The letter goes on to describe a scenario that might explain the illusions glimpsed through that library window into the dark room: “Effects still more remarkable are produced in the eye when it views objects that are difficult to be seen from the small degree of light with which they happen to be illuminated…. These affections of the eye, are, we are persuaded, very frequent causes of a particular class of apparitions which are seen at night by the young and the ignorant.” These historical documents are interesting because they allow us to draw our own – if ultimately highly guided – conclusions about the meaning of The Library Window.
The Library Window is not only one of Margaret Oliphant’s best supernatural stories, it is one of the more interesting supernatural stories from that period of Victorian literature. This new edition is slight but provides interesting context to help us see The Library Window in the light of its time.