Mary loves her husband Major Ochterlony, and their marriage is happy - except when the fidgety Major periodically becomes obsessed with some unwelcome idea which he insists on seeing through, no matter how foolish or hurtful to Mary. They are in India, far from home, when he has his worst idea yet - that they must remarry, as he fears that their earlier "Scotch marriage" could be difficult to prove. This action brings gossip and shame on Mary, and has even more serious repercussions after Mary is widowed and back in England.
The last volume of the novel is suspenseful, as the remarriage is brought against Mary in a way she never envisioned.
Other story lines include a love story and a story of selfish passion.
Biographical and other notes
Though Margaret Oliphant had already introduced the theme of widowhood in earlier novels, notably near the end of Agnes, this is the first novel in which she centers her story on a widow - a still young woman facing a new reality, a woman of "high spirit and independent character", very different from the marginalized widows common in nineteenth century fiction.
Mrs Oliphant herself was widowed at the age of 31. Although Madonna Mary's story line is fictional, the character of Mary has some points in common with Mrs Oliphant - a woman who returns home to England without her husband, little children in tow, and no set plan yet on how to live her life. In the novel Mary has beautiful lambent eyes and is affectionately called Madonna Mary. Margaret Oliphant's friend Robert Herbert Story wrote after her death that Margaret's eyes were "intensely dark and lambent" and that "the upper part of her face, with these wonderful eyes, and crowned with what was then very dark hair, bore a singular resemblance to the Madonna di San Sisto. Indeed, 'Madonna Mia' was a name she was not unused to hear." (Per The Scotsman 1 July 1897, page 5, and later requoted in Memoir of Robert Herbert Story by his daughters, 1909.)
British publishing information
Periodical: Good Words Jan-Dec 1866
First edition: Hurst and Blackett 1866 (1867 on title page)