Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
In May of 1897, the greatly prolific, and sometimes great, author and critic Margaret Oliphant wrote ‘A Preface: On the Ebb Tide’ describing ‘the strange discovery which a man makes when he finds himself carried away by the retiring waters, no longer coming in upon the top of the wave, but going out’. 1897 was Queen Victoria's jubilee year, and the coincidence of those celebrations for an aged monarch with the ebbing of the century, made for a cultural moment of reflection and a retrospective gaze over the long Victorian era.
In her own career, Oliphant had always been a canny and reliable author in touch with the cultural moment and the publishing market, so in her writing of an ‘ebb tide’ she was yet again in tune with her readership. But for Oliphant this was as much a personal ‘strange discovery’ of ending as it was cultural: she died just over a month after her preface was published, but even in this preface to a book of short stories she was not writing about death itself, but – to her mind – the more difficult ending of a career. She contemplates the artist's realization that the public is no longer interested in his or her work, even though he or she still feels a vigorous creativity. In fact ‘On the Ebb Tide’ introduces her book of short stories The Ways of Life (1897) that republished ‘Mr Sandford’ (1888) and ‘The Wonderful History of Mr Robert Dalyell’ (1892). In each of these stories, the artist outlives the acclaim and respect of his public.
After she died the critics wrote of Oliphant that she had not outlived her relevance or become simply a voice of the past, and that her reputation would survive. Perhaps they were being kind, because it has to be admitted that Oliphant's work did not, unlike that of Anthony Trollope, to whom she was often compared, survive the modernist rejection of the Victorian three-decker novel, the ‘potboiler,’ and what was deemed to be the stuffy morality and heavy detail of plot and description in the novel and short fiction.