I am grateful for having been pointed to Hester by the anonymous responses to my earlier posting on Miss Marjoribanks It's true: Hester is a better novel, in the depth and interest of its characterization, in the unity and momentum of its plot, and in its treatment of women's roles and options. Catherine and Hester are both impressive characters--Catherine perhaps more so, if only in her divergence from the usual run of female roles and the non-ironic presentation of her power and business competence (can we consider her a kind of rebuttal or alternative to Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice?).
As with Miss Marjoribanks (and most Trollope novels that I've read), Hester leaves me feeling that thematic or philosophical interpretations are somewhat beside the point. The editors of my Oxford edition remark that Oliphant is "closer to the mysterious ordinariness of Trollope" than to George Eliot, Dickens, or Gaskell, and their introductory essay emphasizes the commitment of her realism to the ultimate complexity, inexplicability, and inconclusiveness of life. Things happen in the novel, they argue, in a sort of messy way as they do in real life, with people operating on mixed and often inarticulate motives and events unfolding in ways that reveal the limits of individual control over contexts and circumstances. On their reading, the form (or formlessness) of her stories replicates these qualities of real life and thus they have been underappreciated (as, indeed, Oliphant herself predicted). In Hester, much more than in Miss Marjoribanks, the structure of the story actually seemed quite tight, but at the end I did still feel uncertain what it was all ultimately about, just as in Trollope novels you read along (and along, and along) and end up feeling you've followed people's lives from one point to another with many incidents and excursions along the way but without any guiding idea except that people's lives are interesting and we can (and should) take a sympathetic interest in their details. To carry off such fiction and make it compelling is certainly an accomplishment-- but is it a great artistic accomplishment?
I still have two days to decide for sure which Oliphant novel I will use in my "Victorian Women Writers" seminar. Miss Marjoribanks has many elements that present interesting comparisons to the other readings I've chosen, especially Middlemarch, as Lucilla (like Dorothea) has ambitions to do something that matters with her life and even ends up living out something like Dorothea's philanthropic fantasy. I don't see Hester complementing the other readings quite as clearly, but then it seems fair to have Oliphant represented by the best of her novels that I've read. And Hester herself stands up well to Jane Eyre, Margaret Hale, and Dorothea as a feisty heroine trying to figure out how to make a life for herself, defying expectations and facing moral crises along the way.