Tuesday, October 7, 2008

secondary colours

Mrs. Oliphant to Miss Isabella Blackwood.

Sunday Evening.

hough it is again Sunday evening I don't write in the perfect state of quietness which the words suggest. My circumstances are as follows: Tiddy is seated behind me, or rather on the arm of the easy-chair which I occupy, and is driving it for a cab, so if you see any sudden jerks in this letter you will know the cause. The table is heaped with picture-books, and Maggie, rather sentimental with a bad cold, is reading Mrs Jameson's Legends of the Saints, so there you have a peep of our interior.
Thank you very much for your letter. Why don't you tell me the plans you have in your mind for the termination of my story? Now that you have read a little more of it, you will see that I want to represent one of my women as a fool, which character, I think, wants elucidating, and has not received its due weight in the world of fiction. As for your question about whether I think a woman sure to dislike one of her own sex who comes out when she cannot, I answer most decidedly no. There are many women who, obliged to be inactive themselves, follow the labours of other women with such generous sympathy and admiration as makes me feel very small when I think of it. To be perfectly candid, I don't think I could do it, otherwise than very imperfectly, myself. I imagine I should find it very hard to play second for any length of time, or in the estimation of anybody I much cared for; but I do believe there are many women who can do that most magnanimous of acts, and I honour them accordingly. But recollect my secondary character in the present instance is a fool. I am charmed to have your criticism. Without being sentimental in the least on this subject, I have nobody belonging to me now to do me that good office, and you could not possibly do me a greater kindness than by pulling me up whenever you dislike my work and giving me the benefit of your freest criticism. I mean every word of what I say. Sometimes I find it totally impossible to form any opinion of what I have done, and send it off in hopeless perplexity, not knowing whether it is good or bad; so speak out, I beg of you, Isabella mia, and be quite sure that you will always do me a service by so doing. You shall have an early copy of the new novel, which I know you will cut to pieces. I have tried my hand in it at a wicked woman, and the reason why, as you say, I give softness to men rather than to women, is simply because the men of a woman's writing are always shadowy individuals, and it is only members of our own sex that we can fully bring out, bad and good. Even George Eliot is feeble in her men, and I recognise the disadvantage under which we all work in this respect. Sometimes we don't know sufficiently to make the outline sharp and clear; sometimes we know well enough, but dare not betray our knowledge one way or other: the result is that the men in a woman's book are always washed in, in secondary colours. The same want of anatomical knowledge and precision must, I imagine, preclude a woman from ever being a great painter; and if one does make the necessary study, one loses more than one gains. Here is a scientific lecture for you! Did not you call me a blue-stocking, and am I not proving my title to be called so?

-from The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant / arranged and edited by Mrs. Harry Coghill (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1899) pp. 153-55.

No comments: