The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Library Window" (1896)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Library Window” was written by Mrs. Oliphant and first appeared in Blackwood’s (Jan. 1896). Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) was one of the most formidable writers of the Victorian age. She wrote widely, on a number of subjects, was well-respected in her time, and is seen now as one of the best writers of the supernatural of the century.

The narrator of “The Library” is spending a summer with her Aunt Mary. The narrator spends most of her time reading and the rest of her time sitting with the circle of Aunt Mary’s friends. The narrator loves Aunt Mary’s drawing room and loves to sit in it and look out the window. The narrator has always been “fantastic and fanciful and dreamy,”has “a sort of second-sight,”and is “conscious of things to which I paid no attention.”3 Across the road from Aunt Mary’s house is the College, and opposite the drawing room window is the “last window in the row of the College Library.”4 This window is the subject of some discussion among Aunt Mary’s friends, who cannot decide whether it is a real window or not. The problem is that some see the window as being painted black, and some see it as reflecting light, and some see it as no window at all, but only an optical illusion. But some of the women, like Aunt Mary and the superannuated (though still bright) Lady Carnbee, have strange pauses and curious looks on their faces when they discuss the window. One night in June the narrator is looking at the window when she suddenly sees a dim, almost indefinite light shining through it. She also sees the outlines of a room on the other side of the window. As the summer passes the narrator sees increasing amounts of the room, even though none of the other women see any of the room or even, for some of them, see the window itself. The more the narrator sees the room, the more Aunt Mary seems alarmed by the narrator’s vision, and Aunt Mary and Lady Carnbee hint to each other that the narrator may have second sight, which runs in the narrator’s family, for the narrator seems to see more of the room than either do.

The room the narrator sees seems to be a study or a library, a room in which someone studies and does scholarly work. At midsummer the narrator sees an old gentleman in the room, sitting and writing, his back to the window. The narrator grows increasingly interested and even obsessed with the man, who becomes clearer and clearer. One night there is a party in the College Library, and the narrator is told she will attend it, although she would much rather sit and watch the old gentleman. The narrator is taken to the hall where the room she has been watching should be, but the hallway is filled with bookcases and glass cases, and the narrator cannot see where the room or the window would be. She sees a painting hanging in that spot, but no evidence of window or room. She becomes upset, especially when a professor tells her that there never was a window or room there. The narrator is taken home by a family friend, but the narrator keeps insisting that the window is there, even though no one else can see it. She opens the window to the drawing room and cries out to the old gentleman in the room across the street: “Say something to me! I don’t know who you are, or what you are: but you’re lonely and so am I; and I only–feel for you. Say something to me!”5 The man reacts, moving to the window and drawing the narrator to her window. They look at each other, and he smiles and then opens the window and leans out and waves to her.

No one believes her when she claims to have seen the man, but a boy passing in the street says that he saw the window standing open. The narrator falls into a fever, but when she recovers the man does not reappear, and Aunt Mary explains to her that there once was a scholar at the library who “liked his books more than any lady’s love.”6 He ignored a woman’s offering of a ring as a token, and she futilely waved at him until her brothers found out about it and killed him. The narrator never sees him again, except possibly one time: when she returns home from India, a widow with none to welcome her at the port, she sees him waving to her as the ship arrives at the dock.

“The Library Window” is one of the best ghost stories of the nineteenth century. It has a leisurely pace which nicely establishes tone and character and builds the mystery of the window. “The Library Window” is a domestic story, and has neither the individual frightening moments or the sweet sentiment of “The Open Door.” But the creation of the women’s world, of Aunt Mary and her friends, is very well done, and a welcome change to the worlds that men described in their horror fiction. A great deal of horror fiction in the nineteenth century was written by women—perhaps as much as 70% of the published horror fiction in the century was written by women7--but only the minutest fraction of that fiction has been reprinted and read by modern readers, so that the combination of women’s world and the supernatural is likely to be a fresh change to the modern reader of “The Library Window.”

Oliphant also evokes the feeling from childhood of adults who frustratingly know more than we do and who withhold secrets from us—a withholding that adult Victorian women, and especially adult Victorian female writers like Oliphant endured: 

Those familiar with feminist criticism of Victorian texts may find the story of a young girl stranded in Tantalus-like yearning for a scholarly world she cannot enter one of the period's crisper, if hitherto neglected, allegories of what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have so famously called the nineteenth-century woman writer's "anxiety of authorship." Especially since the narrator loses her ability to see the scholar once his ghostly nature is revealed, the "narrative of female exclusion" that Diana Basham identifies in Oliphant's supernatural fiction…encodes in this case Victorian women's marginal relation to literary authority, an outcast status poignantly evoked by the aunt's description of the curse on the family's women: "It is a longing all your life after--it is a looking--for what never comes."

In this sense, the female uncanny translates into fiction the overwhelming sense of secondariness that haunts Oliphant's Autobiography, where, despite her prodigious literary output and aspirations, she stresses her exclusion from the realm of "high art" which, as historians and critics have noted, was in the late nineteenth century newly professionalized and increasingly masculinized.8

Finally, “The Library Window” is a page-turner despite its length; the reader will want to know what happens and the explanation for the window. The ambiguity and lack of closure in the story are not frustrating, but rather enticing. The reader is left wanting more but satisfied with what they have received.

Recommended Edition

Print: David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, eds., The Treasury of the Fantastic: Romanticism to Early Twentieth Century Literature. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2013.


For Further Research

Jenni Calder, “Through Mrs. Oliphant’s Library Window,” Women’s Writing 10, no. 3 (2003): 485-502.


1 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” in Alan K. Russell, The Book of the Dead (Poole: New Orchards Editions, 1986), 284.

2 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” 285.

3 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” 285.

4 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” 285.

5 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” 305.

6 Mrs. Oliphant, “The Library Window,” 319.

7 Salmonson, “Preface.”

8 Tamar Heller, “Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Library Window,’” Victorian Literature and Culture 25, no. 1 (1997): 23-24.