Novel 056: Margaret Oliphant, The Unjust Steward (1896)

Sir David Wilkie, A Bookcase

Sir David Wilkie, A Bookcase


A poor clergyman places himself in a moral quandary.

This is one of the last of Oliphant’s hundred-some novels (for others see Posts 007 & 008).  She had been publishing for almost half a century and had come to seem old-fashioned.  The Academy’s critic, for example, after confessing a “sneaking fondness” for Oliphant, points out that she “began to write before the days when fiction became an art, and no doubt her conceptions of the possibilities and obligations of her calling are, in comparison with modern lights, limited.” This false perception of the culture of 1849 says a lot about that of 1896.  Anyway, old or not, Oliphant provides here a searching analysis of a complex, ambivalent, self-deceived character’s struggles to reconcile the moral with the expedient.

We are “transported by the writer’s easy art into an old-world atmosphere, redolent of the true flavour of a social humour not quite forgotten, but sufficiently removed from the commonplace banalities, the sexual problems, and the topical ingenuities of the day.”  Athenaeum, December 19, 1896

Oliphant’s “stories are always characterised by an old-world courtliness and a wonderful sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of old and young alike.  Everything she puts her pen to is thoroughly entertaining.”  Liverpool Mercury, December 23, 1896

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