Day 940: Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland, of Sunnyside

Cover for Passages in the LifeI have mentioned before that Margaret Oliphant was one of the most popular novelists of her time, but only a few of her novels are easily available except in print by demand. So, her complete works was one of the collections I selected from Delphi Classics in e-book form.

I decided to read the works in order of their appearance in the collection, and this novel is the first, published in 1849. Like the others I have read, it is a domestic novel, about events in the lives of ordinary people. It has a few light overtones of a more sensational genre, however.

Margaret Maitland is a spinster when she takes on the charge of raising a young orphan, Grace Maitland. Since her mother’s death, Grace has been in charge of an aunt, but Margaret’s friend thinks she will do better with Margaret, and Grace’s aunt has no objection. So, Margaret takes young Grace and frankly loves her at first sight. Grace lives happily at Mistress Maitland’s home of Sunnyside and spends a lot of her time with Margaret’s niece Mary and nephew Claud. Margaret’s brother Claud is a minister, and Margaret and her family are strict Scottish Presbyterians.

When Grace is a young woman, though, her aunt, Mrs. Lennox, demands that she return to live with her in Edinburgh. Grace does not have fond memories of Mrs. Lennox and does not want to go, but Margaret urges her toward obedience and hopes that things will be better for her than Grace expects. There have been rumors that Grace is an heiress, but no one at Sunnyside has put much store in them.

For some time, all we hear from Grace are her letters. Her family keeps her isolated from other people, never letting her attend events but telling others she is an invalid. When Claud, who is at school in Edinburgh, calls on her, he is first told she is not at home and later treated shamefully.

There is other drama closer to home, because Margaret’s niece Mary is being courted by Allan Elphinstone, young Lilliesleaf. His mother is looking higher for him than Mary, though, and encourages him to associate with the nearby gentry, where he gets into bad company. Mary won’t have him, therefore, and Margaret can only agree, for a similar situation in her youth brought her to her solitary state. Margaret thinks Allan can improve, though, and he sets out to try to do so. A subtitle on some editions of “Lilliesleaf” leads me to suppose that the plot about Mary and Allan was supposed to be the main story, but I was more interested in Grace’s predicament.

This is an enjoyable novel with likable characters, even though some of its attitudes seem very dated. One difficulty I had with it, though, is that it is written in Scots dialect. The narration by Mistress Maitland isn’t difficult to understand, but some of the country folk use expressions with which I am unfamiliar, so I think I missed most of the humor of the novel. In addition, this e-book was almost certainly machine read from an old manuscript and there are many mistakes, especially in words where old-style typography had ligatures, or connected letters. The combination of the dialect, which had words I didn’t understand, with the many typos made the text difficult. If you want to read this, you might try finding an old used book instead of an e-book or print on demand edition (which I assume would have the same problems).

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