Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, January 12, 2021


 "Old Lady Mary" by Mrs. Oliphant (first published in Blackwood's Christmas Annual, 1883; re[rinted separately in 1884 and included in Two Stories of the Seen and Unseen:  The Open Door; Old Lady Mary (1885) and in Stories of the Seen and Unseen (1889)

First off, this is a novella rather than a short story but I won't say anything if you won't.

Secondly, this is an ineffectual ghost story.  Not that the story is ineffectual (although it can be overblown and maudlin), but it is the ghost that is ineffectual.  And that makes it fun.

"She was very old, and therefore it was very hard for her to make up her mind to die."

That first sentence gives the reader the crux of the story.

Lady Mary is in her eighties, a time when life's anxieties have past her by and she looks forward every morning to a pleasant and stress-free day.  She's rich so there are no worries on that part.  She is quick-minded and has all her senses.  And she is devoted to her young ward, also named Mary.  Young Mary Vivian is eighteen and is devoted to Lady Mary.  Lady Mary is much loved by all who know her and especially so by her servants.  If the kind lady has a fault, it is in her refusal to believe that she may die sometime in the near future.  In her mind, death is something that is far away.

Her lawyer, however, believes in being prepared and is constantly after her to make out her will.  Lady Mary intends to leave everything to her ward but feels there is time enough to attend to that later and she stubbornly refuses to make her will.  Without the will, the entire estate will go to her grandson, a very rich Earl who had no need of her estate.  Whether through silliness or stubbornness, or perhaps just not thinking things through, she refused to make out her will, always telling her lawyer there was time enough for that later.

On evening, a fancy took her.  She would make out her will and not tell her lawyer.  Then, when he would begin his usual berating of her, she would take out the will and show him.  That would be an amusing joke to play on the lawyer.  So she wrote out her will and hid it in a secret compartment in an Italian cabinet in her room. 

Soon after, she died, having not told anyone about the hidden will.

Young Mary is left penniless and homeless and is taken in by the local vicar's family.  Many people in the community are upset with Lady Mary for leaving her young ward in such a situation.  Lady Mary, now in the Unseen, realizes her folly and wishes to correct it.  She asks permission to return to Earth to correct her foolish mistake.  It turns out that such permission is seldom granted and only in cases of dire emergency.  Even then, the returning soul soon discovers that little, if anything, can be done.  But Lady Mary's impassioned please are heard and she is given permission to return to the land of the Seen

But Lady Mary cannot be seen.  Or heard.  Or felt.  Or do anything that would impinge upon the living.  One slight ray of hope is that she can be seen -- and only seen -- by the very young, usually by babies.  Every effort Lady Mary makes to communicate with the living fails.

In the meantime Lady Mary's estate is rented out to a nouveau riche family from **gasp!** The City!  (You can tell they are not of a certain class because they drop their "h"s.)  The lady of the household, Mrs. Turner, is nonetheless a kind and well-meaning lady.  She hires young Mary as governess for her daughter Connie, and she even gives young Mary her old bedroom back.  Connie, it happens, is young enough to see Lady Mary's ghost, but only on occasion.  Naturally, no one believes the young child, who does not realize she is seeing a ghost.

Soon, though, imagination takes control of the household staff, who begin believing they are seeing ghosts also.  This give rise to the theory that the ghost is Lady Mary, the cruel and unthinking woman who had left her beloved ward to the mercies of a cruel world.  More and more people talk about how Lady Mary must have been cold-hearted and unthinking.  Young Mary protests.  She still loves Lady Mary with all her heart and can think no wrong of her.  All the while, however, young Mary is becoming paler and losing weight, putting her health in jeopardy.  She collapses but is slowly brought back to a semblance of health.

What of Lady Mary?  Her efforts are in vain.  Will she be condemned to roam the Earth because she cannot resolve young Mary's situation?  Will young Mary's health take another turn for the worse, bringing the two to meet in the Unseen prematurely?

Of course not.  Deus ex machina arrives in the form of the Earl who had inherited the property, which he decides to sell.  First though, he decides to sell the furnishings.  The Italian cabinet goes to the vicar, who had already admired it.  The vicar's young sons insist on finding a way into the secret compartment and, in doing so, find the will.  Young Mary is restored to her rightful estate and Lady Mary is allowed back to the Unseen, knowing that she has been forgiven.  "There is no more," she is told by those in the Unseen.  

"For everything is included in pardon and love."

Phew!  There's a lot to unpack there.  Was Lady Mary's journey back to the Seen even necessary?  For her sake, perhaps yes.  For the final outcome of young Mary's story, certainly not.  

the author has written a number of stories about the Seen and the Unseen, purportedly trying to map out the realm of the afterlife (although it should be noted that the Unseen can also refer to the land before birth).  Four of her stories involve "The Little Pilgrim," an older woman who has passed on and is guided through the afterlife, including a Victorian version of Hell.  Most of her "Seen and Unseen" stories are over written and at times maudlin, but there remains a quaint power to then.  One, "The Open Door," is a highly effective and often reprinted story.  

The author, Margret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant -- yes, there are two Oliphants there -- (1828 to 1897), was a very prolific author, with 100 novels, nine collection, and twenty-six nonfiction works to her credit; many of her novels were the three-volume clunkers so popular at the time.  Most of her novels were of "domestic realism" or historical novels.

The author lived a very hard life.  After having some success in writing novels, she married her cousin, Frank Wilson Oliphant, shortly after she turned 24.  They had six children but three of the died in infancy.  Her husband then died of tuberculosis before their seventh anniversary.  That left with three children to support, but then her only remaining daughter died a few years later.  In the meantime, her brother met with financial ruin in Canada and she offered to support him and his children.  All these responsibilities meant that she had to work hard at her writing inn order to support all who depended on her.  With the deaths of her two sons in 1890 and 1894, Mrs. Oliphant's health steadily declined.

In the main, time has not been kind to her.  Virginia Woolf wrote that she "sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her civil liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children."  Critic John Skelton wrote that had she "concentrated her powers, what might she not have done?  We might have had another Charlotte Bronte or another George Eliot."  M. R. James admired her supernatural fiction, though:  "the religious ghost story, as it may be called, was never done any better than by Mrs. Oliphant."

And, perhaps, that is her legacy

."Old Lady Mary" is available to read online via the usual suspects.


  1. How unkind of Virginia Woolf. Your review is as long as my story. Good work here.

  2. I love that First Line and I loved your informative story of the writer's difficult life. Very impressive!

  3. I have only read "The Open Door" by her, as far as I remember, and ha when I was 8 or 9yo in Henry Mazzeo's HAUNTINGS, and can't remember a single detail of the narrative. Perhaps I should rectify that, or perhaps simply pursue what her brother was doing for their years together...thanks for the post!

  4. Ts still only work intermittently on this computer, unless forced...