1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Oliphant, Laurence
OLIPHANT, LAURENCE (1829–1888), British author, son of Anthony Oliphant (1793–1859), was born at Cape Town. His father was then attorney-general in Cape Colony, but was soon transferred as chief justice to Ceylon. The boy’s education was of the most desultory kind. Far the least useless portion of it belonged to the years 1848 and 1849, when he accompanied his parents on a tour on the continent of Europe. In 1851 he accompanied Jung Bahadur from Colombo to Ncpaul. He passed an agreeable time there, and saw enough that was new to enable him to write his first book, A Journey to Katmandu (1852). From Nepaul he returned to Ceylon and thence to England, dallied a little with the English bar, so far at least as to eat dinners at Lincoln’s Inn, and then with the Scottish bar, so far at least as to pass an examination in Roman law. He was more happily inspired when he threw over his legal studies and went to travel in Russia. The outcome of that tour was his book on The Russian Shores of the Black Sea (1853). Between 1853 and 1861 he was successively secretary to Lord Elgin during the negotiation of the Canada Reciprocity treaty at Washington, the companion of the duke of Newcastle on a visit to the Circassian coast during the Crimean War, and Lord Elgin’s private secretary on his expedition to China. Each of these experiences produced a pleasant book of travel. In 1861 he was appointed first secretary in Japan, and might have made a successful diplomatic career if it had not been interrupted, almost at the outset, by a night attack on the legation, in which he nearly lost his life. It seems probable that he never properly recovered from this affair. He returned to England and resigned the service, and was elected to parliament in 1865 for the Stirling Burghs.
Oliphant did not show any conspicuous parliamentary ability, but made a great success by his vivacious and witty novel, Piccadilly (1870). He fell, however, under the influence of the spiritualist prophet Thomas Lake Harris (q.v.), who about 1861 had organized a small community, the Brotherhood of the New Life, which at this time was settled at Brocton on Lake Erie and subsequently moved to Santa Rosa in California. Harris obtained so strange an ascendancy over Oliphant that the latter left parliament in 1868, followed him to Brocton, and lived there the life of a farm labourer, in obedience to the imperious will of his spiritual guide. The cause of this painful and grotesque aberration has never been made quite clear. It was part of the Brocton regime that members of the community should be allowed to return into the world from time to time, to make money for its advantage. After three years this was permitted to Oliphant, who, when once more in Europe, acted as correspondent of The Times during the Franco-German War, and spent afterwards several years at Paris in the service of that journal. There he met Miss Alice le Strange, whom he married. In 1873 he went back to Brocton, taking with him his wife and mother. During the years which followed he continued to be employed in the service of the community and its head, but on work very different from that with which he had been occupied on his first sojourn. His new work was chiefly financial, and took him much to New York and a good deal to England. As late as December 1878 he continued to believe that Harris was an incarnation of the Deity. By that time, however, his mind was occupied with a large project of colonization in Palestine, and he made in 1879 an extensive journey in that country, going also to Constantinople,
in the vain hope of obtaining a lease of the northern half of the Holy Land with a view to settling large numbers of Jews there. This he conceived would be an easy task from a financial point of view, as there were so many persons in England and America “anxious to fulfil the prophecies, and bring about the end of the world.” He landed once more in England without having accomplished anything definite; but his wife, who had been banished from him for years and had been living in California, was allowed to rejoin him, and they went to Egypt together. In 1881 he crossed again to America. It was on this visit that he became utterly disgusted with Harris, and finally split from him. He was at first a little afraid that his wife would not follow him in his renunciation of “the prophet,” but this was not the case, and they settled themselves very agreeably, with one house in the midst of the German community at Haifa, and another about twelve miles off at Dalieh on Mount Carmel.
It was at Haïfa in 1884 that they wrote together the strange book called Sympneumata: Evolutionary Forces now active in Man, and in the next year Oliphant produced there his novel Masollam, which may be taken to contain its author’s latest views with regard to the personage whom he long considered as “a new Avatar.” One of his cleverest works, Altiora Peto. had been published in 1883. In 1886 an attack of fever, caught on the shores of the Lake of Tiberias, resulted in the death of his wife, whose constitution had been undermined by the hardships of her American life. He was persuaded that after death he was in much closer relation with her than when she was still alive, and conceived that it was under her influence that he wrote the book to which he gave the name of Scientific Religion. In November 1887 he went to England to publish that book. By the Whitsuntide of 1888 he had completed it and started for America. There he determined to marry again, his second wife being a granddaughter of Robert Owen the Socialist. They were married at Malvern, and meant to have gone to Haifa, but Oliphant was taken very ill at Twickenham, and died on the 23rd of December 1888. Although a very clever man and a delightful companion, full of high aspiration and noble feeling, Oliphant was only partially sane. In any case, his education was ludicrously inappropriate for a man who aspired to be an authority on religion and philosophy. He had gone through no philosophical discipline in his early life, and knew next to nothing of the subjects with regard to which he imagined it was in his power to pour a flood of new light upon the world. His shortcomings and eccentricities, however, did not prevent his being a brilliant writer and talker, and a notable figure in any society.
See Mrs (Margaret) Oliphant, Memoir of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and of Alice Oliphant his Wife (1892). (M. G. D.)
- The family to which Oliphant belonged is old and famous in Scottish history. Sir Laurence Oliphant of Aberdalgie, Perthshire, who was created a lord of the Scottish parliament before 1458, was descended from Sir William Oliphant of Aberdalgie and on the female side from King Robert the Bruce. Sir William (d. 1329) is renowned for his brave defence of Stirling castle against Edward I. in 1304. Sir Laurence was sent to conclude a treaty with England in 1484; he helped to establish the young king James IV. on his throne, and he died about 1500. His son John, the 2nd lord (d. 1516), having lost his son and heir, Colin, at Flodden, was succeeded by his grandson Laurence (d. 1566), who was taken prisoner by the English at the rout of Solway Moss in 1542. Laurence's son, Laurence, the 4th lord (1529–1593), was a partisan of Mary queen of Scots, and was succeeded by his grandson Laurence (1583–1631), who left no sons when he died. The 6th lord was Patrick Oliphant, a descendant of the 4th lord, and the title was held by his descendants until the death of Francis, the 10th lord, in April 1748. It has since been claimed by several persons, but without success. Another member of the family was Laurence Oliphant (1691–1767) the Jacobite, who belonged to a branch settled at Gask in Perthshire. He took part in the rising of 1715, and both he and his son Laurence (d. 1792) were actively concerned in that of 1745, being present at the battles of Falkirk and Culloden. After the ruin of the Stuart cause they escaped to France, but were afterwards allowed to return to Scotland. One of this Oliphant’s descendants was Carolina, Baroness Nairne (q.v.).
- It should be mentioned that the unfavourable view of Harris taken by Oliphant’s own biographer, and certainly not shaken by subsequent evidence, has been strongly repudiated by some who knew him. Mr J. Cuming Walters, for instance, in the Westminster Gazette (London, July 28, 1906) defends the purity of his character. It is difficult to arrive at the exact truth as to Oliphant’s relations with him, or the financial scandal which ended them; and it must be admitted that Oliphant himself was at least decidedly cranky.