Margaret Oliphant’s novels make frequent reference to the consumer culture of the period, ranging from shopping in department stores to the purchase of art works by private collectors. Both female and male shoppers feature in her novels, and the goods itemised include jewellery, dresses, furnishings, wallpaper, ceramics, and bookcases. Drawing on recent theories of nineteenth-century consumer cultures, this essay explores the sociology of shopping in a selection of Oliphant’s best-known novels. While she communicates the joys of shopping, whether for gifts to please others, or for the innocent pleasure of acquiring something new, Oliphant also registers the social unease of relationships between shopkeepers and customers, and her characters’ sober realization that material things in themselves offer no lasting compensation for the emotional emptiness of self-absorption or disappointment. Ultimately, shopping becomes for Oliphant a way of representing the complexities of social structures, and the involuntary connections forged by buying and selling. In this respect, it merges with her other concerns about class and gender, secrecy and hypocrisy, in close-knit communities, while her ironic treatment of those unhealthily preoccupied with ‘things’ subverts their mistaken values.
Sanders, V. (2019). Mrs. Oliphant's Shopping: The Pleasures and Perils of Consumerism in Margaret Oliphant's Major Fiction. Yearbook of English Studies, 49, 48-66. https://doi.org/10.5699/yearenglstud.49.2019.0048