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246 12. Youthful Visionaries in Margaret Oliphant’s Fin-de-Siècle Fiction ANNE STAPLETON Margaret Oliphant’s fin-de-siècle short stories utilise a child’s perspective in order to explore important cultural, gendered, and literary boundaries. Alert to the vulnerability of others and vital to the restoration of order, children remain central. In three of Oliphant’s most haunting stories, ‘The Open Door’ (1882), ‘Old Lady Mary’ (1884), and ‘The Library Window’ (1896),1 youth become the primary conduit of interchange with, and seers of, supernatural worlds through commonplace physical locations. Discerning characters include the ‘deeply sensitive’ (115) Roland, in ‘The Open Door’, the prescient ‘little Connie’ (178), in ‘Old Lady Mary’, and the unnamed budding adolescent with second sight, in ‘The Library Window’. In each case, a child’s candour, faith, and compassion enhance his or her perception of other people and provide access to understanding that far exceeds the ‘cold-blooded confidence’ (140) and the knowledge of modern-day realists. Unlike moral tales for young Victorian readers, however, Oliphant’s Gothictinged narratives reverse a dry didactic trajectory to unfold evocative lessons for adults, particularly guardians of children.2 Oliphant does not ask readers to suspend belief as they read her stories but rather to see temporarily through the unclouded eyes of children – the true visionaries of the world. During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, a burgeoning readership became eager for both experimental short fiction crafted for an adult readership and imaginative fantasy literature intended to delight children, thereby providing Oliphant with an ideal opportunity to explore the flexible form of the short story as she drew attention to the sphere and power of a child’s faith.3 Unfettered by lengthy entangled plots characteristic of Victorian novels and emphasising ‘psychological intensity and formal innovation’,4 fin-de-siècle stories allowed writers to re-imagine enigmatic subjects while incorporating new literary techniques. A prolific and versatile III. CHILD’S PLAY 247 youthful visionaries in margaret oliphant’s fiction writer,5 Oliphant chose this genre to look anew at the agency of the child, a recurring preoccupation in the final decades of her life. By the time she published ‘The Open Door’ in 1882, her husband, one brother, and four of her six children had predeceased her, her daughter Maggie’s death in particular marking a ‘graver era’ of intense introspection and ‘trial of faith’, as she explains in her autobiography.6 Her two remaining children died in adulthood before she published ‘The Library Window’ in 1896. Gillian Avery and Kimberley Reynolds point out that childhood death was quite common until the twentieth century, and parental grief understandably central, but they argue ‘there is little evidence of what young people themselves thought or felt in the face of death – their own or the deaths of siblings and friends’.7 Oliphant homes in on this topic. In the depths of despair and grief about Maggie in 1864, Oliphant asks in her autobiographical writing: [w]here, then, are they, those who have gone before us? […] I have tried to follow her in my imagination, to think of her delight and surprise when from the fever, wandering and languor of her bed she came suddenly into the company of angels and the presence of the Lord. […] Did she not stop short there and say, ‘Where is Mamma?’ did not the separation overwhelm her?8 Perhaps seeking answers during the most powerful rhetorical moments of her short tales, Oliphant turns to children, giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns and deep compassion for others, particularly in the face of death. She evokes supernatural mediators to establish contact between a real and a spiritual world in order to highlight the marginalised lives of specific characters, largely children and women. Neither passive nor fully autonomous, Oliphant’s literary young are serious subjects concerned with justice, often guiding or advising adults and other children, some of whom are spirits in another world. Stylistically, Oliphant features striking Scottish settings and literary traditions, including folk myths and ballads,9 while negotiating the liminal space between realism and aestheticism, oral tale and literary story, and worlds seen and unseen. ‘The Open Door’ and ‘The Library Window’ unfold 248 anne stapleton explicitly in Scotland, and the locations create the conditions in which singular events can develop. Settings also enhance the stories’ themes and protagonists’ epiphanies. In ‘The Library Window’, for example, the central revelation relies upon the narrator’s second sight, which improves...


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