Compressed lives

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There was something curiously sad about reading The complete robot, though I am puzzled to pin it down.  Perhaps it is seeing Asimov’s lifetime of robot stories compressed into one slightly dog-eared volume.  The stories are arranged thematically (‘Some immobile robots’, ‘Powell and Donovan’ etc.) so there is no sense of an arc or chronology in the writing, yet time weighs on the volume.  Perhaps it is sad to be reminded how thin some of the stories are, how long ago the Golden Age happened, how much more challenging and entertaining the tales were when I was fourteen. Maybe this is the last time I will read them.Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography is mis-named, consisting only of four fragments, written at wide intervals and with purposes which changed as her life altered.  The fragments have the immediacy (almost) of a diary, unhomogenised for publication, and often raw with grief or self-knowledge.  The letters, of course, were written to be seen by at least one pair of eyes, yet again are created in the immediacy of a particular moment and purpose.  Her family life included much loss, disappointment and sadness, and her editor (who was also an adopted daughter) describes the relief with which Margaret Oliphant turned from life when informed that her final illness would be mortal.

And yet the vigour of her literary production was enormous.  I’ve read scarcely any of her journalism and none of her non-fiction works, and only a small proportion of the fiction.  Those novels I have read are not the easy romantic crowd-pleasers one would expect from a Victorian hack writer, though they are often flawed.  On the contrary:  Oliphant was capable of a moral complexity at least as challenging as anything to be found in her contemporaries, and sometimes tougher than almost anything I’ve ever read. (She could also be exceedingly witty.)  Most of her readers seem to agree that Miss Marjoribanks is the masterpiece, and certainly for me it’s pure joy from cover to cover.

A woman of so much drive and talent, but so religious, so conventional and with so few pretensions, was always going to be a puzzle to the Victorians, and I suspect she remains a stumbling block now, in spite of a developing cloud of critics and apologists.  Sometimes I think I’ll try one of the modern biographies; but then again, perhaps I’ll just let her continue to speak for herself.

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