As an erstwhile obituarist, I pity the poor hack who had to write up the life of Laurence Oliphant — adventurer, diplomat, war correspondent, mystic, spy (and the subject of Bart Casey’s biography) — when he died, aged 59, in 1888. The first paragraph should (according to the well-seasoned formula) contain some characterising incident or achievement, giving the measure of the man, the impact he made on the world and those around him, and an indication of his interior life. The anecdote must — like cherry-picked quotations for a Shakespeare exam — inform more than one facet of a broader narrative. Any runner-up contenders can be dropped into paragraphs four, eight and 12.
The difficulty with Oliphant is that his entire life was a mosaic of improbable adventures. Should one begin in 1870 when, as a war correspondent for the Times, he dined with Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in order to garner information on hostilities between Prussia and France, before touring the battlefields of the Loire in a covered coach as cannonballs burst overhead? Or perhaps back in 1855, in Chechnya, when Oliphant (ostensibly on a mission to convince the Chechens to side with the British and Turks against the Russians) was mistaken by a Turkish commander for a serving officer, and charged with co-ordinating 250 men to set up an artillery battery yards from the Russian frontline on a night-time raid? (Oliphant later reported to his mother that he’d performed this task with ‘a pretty brisk shower of missiles flying about’.)
Or, again, our obituarist might start with an account of Oliphant’s work trying to break the monopoly of the first transatlantic submarine telegraph cable company. For nearly 20 years, a race to bridge the two-week information delay between Europe and North America had been a source of intense financial speculation. Oliphant wanted in on all this, and attempted to convince the Canadian government that the incumbent Anglo-American Cable Company was breaking competition law. His motive? To finance the closed religious society that he had joined, which believed that angels and fairies could be reached by means of deep meditative breathing.
Queen Victoria recorded in her journal how struck she was by Oliphant’s cleverness, and by his interesting ideas on religion after she was presented with a copy of his Sympneumata, a book about the cosmo-sexual union of man and woman that had been ‘dictated’ to Oliphant by his dead wife Alice le Strange.
Oliphant is probably remembered today (if he’s remembered at all — his grave in Twickenham has few visitors) as a proto-Zionist, and streets in Haifa and Jerusalem are named after him. Motivated by a practical concern for Jews suffering persecution in eastern Europe rather than by any ideological view, he won financial backing for the purchase of land in Palestine. He and his wife founded a commune there, while continuing to press for further migration of Jews to the Holy Land.
Again, this was just one facet of a life that included being an MP, practising at the bar and writing a series of highly successful books, including the satirical novel Piccadilly. The title of Casey’s biography (a quotation from Oliphant himself — ‘Most people are more or less conscious of leading a sort of double life, an outside one and an inside one’), is arguably unfortunate, given the multiple nature of the narrative. But we trip along breezily enough, with Casey delightfully describing the intricacies of fairy communication and how to achieve sexual union with ethereal beings.
There were many oddball Victorians, and it’s easy to agree with John Stuart Mill that ‘the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained’. It was a time when religious belief was being eroded by Darwin but, equally, when developments in electricity and radio encouraged theories about a science of celestial communication, leading to the craze of spiritualism that helped shape Oliphant’s views. At the same time, society was obsessed by sex — sublimated into a kind of prudish-prurient schizophrenia — which also saturated Oliphant’s writing. (For years he and his wife abstained from sex, believing that this was the best way to achieve ‘true’ sexual togetherness.)
So how did the Times obituarist tie all this together? He went for a kind of fudge — which seems fair enough when writing about Oliphant: ‘Seldom has there been a more romantic or amply filled career; never, perhaps, a stranger or more apparently contradictory personality.’