Victorian England devoured the printed word. It was said that in “no age has there yet existed anything resembling the extraordinary flood of novels which is now pouring over this land.” In earlier times, an author “was a natural curiosity, recognized and stared at as became the rarity of the phenomenon,” but in those yeasty days, “stains of ink linger[ed] on the prettiest of fingers and to write novels [was] the normal condition of a large section of society.” Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (1828–1897), the author of those words, was herself a major force behind that literary deluge.

Reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favorite novelist, Mrs. Oliphant (as she was invariably known) was the author of ninety-eight novels, twenty-five volumes of non-fiction, as well as numerous works in translation (she was fluent in Italian and did professional...

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