Phoebe Junior by Mrs Oliphant

published 1876


Phoebe came in blooming from the cold, in a furred jacket, at which the girls looked in unfeigned admiration… The jacket was beyond comparison with anything that had been seen for ages in Carlingford. The deep border of fur round the velvet, the warm waddings and paddings, the close fit up to the throat, were excellencies which warranted Janey's tour of inspection.


Phoebe chose a costume of Venetian blue, one soft tint dying into another like the lustre on a piece of old glass, which in her own opinion was a great deal too good for the occasion. “Some one will tread on it to a certainty, and the colours don't show in candle-light; but I must try to please grandmamma,” she said heroically. When it was put on with puffings of lace such as Mrs. Tozer had never seen, and was entirely ignorant of the value of, at the throat and sleeves, Phœbe wrapt a shawl round her in something of the same dim gorgeous hue, covered with embroidery, an Indian rarity which somebody had bestowed upon her mother.



comments: Miss Marjoribanks by the same author was a major find for me last year, a book I loved. This one is from 10 years later and it is another highly enjoyable novel, though not quite up to Miss M’s standards. Again it takes place largely in the fictitious town of Carlingford, her regular setting, though also in London.

Phoebe is another excellent heroine: she comes to the town to help look after her grandmother, and her path criss-crosses a number of other people, and we follow their difficulties, excitements and romantic dreams.

One of my readers, Christine Harding, shared this spot-on perception: “Margaret Oliphant seems to be overlooked these days, but she was an excellent writer, a keen observer of human nature, and a great de-bunker of social pretensions.”

This is a great description of what gives her such a modern feel compared with her contemporaries. For example this:

“it would be good for the social relations of the country if your pastors and teachers were always present [at social events]. It gives at once a character to all the proceedings.” This, like every other lofty assertion, stilled the multitude.

Once you have read a fair amount of Mrs Oliphant, you know exactly how the ‘multitude’ reacts to this sentiment… particularly if she means the young women. Later on, someone is telling some young women how wonderful their father is –

“Is it papa he is talking of like that?” she said, under her breath.

I choose to take her surprise in the way a modern writer would mean it…

There is a plotline concerning a clergyman taking on a sinecure: he is paid generously to be chaplain to an almshouse, but has little to do. This is endlessly discussed and analyzed – all very much like Trollope’s The Warden, from 20 years earlier. And Trollope gets a mention: along with another blog favourite, Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (several blogposts…)

Phoebe says she recognizes the last name May from a book: “Oh! I know,” cried Janey, “the Daisy Chain. We are not a set of prigs like those people. We are not goody, whatever we are”.

Later Phoebe says “One reads Scott for Scotland (and a few other things), and one reads Miss Yonge for the church. Mr. Trollope is good for that too, but not so good. All that I know of clergymen's families I have got from her. I can recognize you quite well, and your sister, but the younger ones puzzle me; they are not in Miss Yonge; they are too much like other children, too naughty. I don’t mean anything disagreeable. The babies in Miss Yonge are often very naughty too, but not the same.”

You genuinely don’t know where all this is going, and you want to know – but it is difficult to make sense of social differences and religious problems. I didn’t (surprisingly) see why the capitalist, bluff-speaking millionnaire (spelled that way in the book) Copperhead was so terrible – it was taken for granted that he was awful. And yet another character does what to me was a really dreadful thing – dishonest, fraudulent and involving someone else unjustly in his crime. He seems to get off very lightly in comparison.

Still, the story is very readable and rattles along. I will certainly read more by her, and look forward to placing more books in a top 10.

The furred jacket is from the NYPL collection.

Other pictures by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) – a Belgian painter  who had a line in Victorian women & their dresses, so used by me several times.  He seems to have had some shawls in his studio for them to drape around. He also had a line in grieving widows.


  1. I like Phoebe just from your description, Moira. It's nice to have a Victorian-era female protagonist who's not simpering or a shrinking violet. And I do like the small-town setting. The writing style is well-done, too. I wonder why Oliphant isn't better known...

    1. Yes exactly! And all that would suit a crime novel wouldn't it - a pity it wasn't really an option to turn her hand to that back in the day, she would have been very good at it.

  2. I've read three of Mrs Oliphan's Carlingford novels and loved them. Now, I have to look out for this one.

    1. I am looking forward to reading more of them.

    2. If you can't get it through your local library, Project Gutenberg has a free ebook of Phoebe Junior to download.

    3. Thanks Shay, always on it with tiptop info!

  3. I've been binge-reading Mrs Oliphant since that first post of yours, and I just love her. Some of her heroines are less spirited than Phoebe and Miss M, but still interesting. She's very class-conscious, stressing "manners" almost like Jane Austen but a little more "democratic" (a word that she is rather scornful of). Her clergymen are especially varied and well-drawn. The curate in this book also has a book of his own, another of the Carlingford series. (Mrs O also set a lot of novels in Scotland, which she clearly loved, and a few in Italy.) She's clear-eyed about romance, and skewers the Victorian ideas of male superiority and "woman's place" without being too revolutionary about it. Maybe that partly explains why her works have been "forgotten"! BTW many of her books are online on Faded Page and Project Gutenberg.

    1. Thanks so much for all this extra information, and I am delighted you are enjoying them. I'm just wondering which one to read next, what would be your recommendation?

    2. My recommendation of the Carlingford books would be "The Perpetual Curate" which came right before "Miss Marjoribanks" in the series. (It features the curate I mentioned above--who doesn't really appear in "Phoebe Junior" as I thought, but in earlier books.) It has a male protagonist but also interesting female characters. It does talk a lot about the Dissenters versus "the Church" but theological expertise isn't needed, it goes more to motivation of the characters. I thought the female lead was a little too good to be true, but she's still fairly human. You could also do the series chronologically which would introduce you to some of the characters in the later books. I just discovered a website ( which has links to her books as well as other info about them and her. She had other, short series of only a couple books each, that might interest you as well.

    3. Thanks! I will look for the Perpetual Curate, and very helpful to know about website.


Post a Comment