Like Jane Eyre, a novel to which it is often compared, Olive is a female bildungsroman: a young girl's coming of age story. In Craik's novel, however, the heroine is much more physically distinctive than the "plain" Jane Eyre. Olive Rothesay is born prematurely to a young, lovely mother who continues to entertain guests through her pregnancy in an effort to entertain herself during her husband's long absence. When the doctor pronounces the baby "deformed," the dismayed mother hides the truth from her husband until his return a few years later.

Combined with Colonel Rothesay's own secrets, Mrs. Rothesay's deception produces a permanent rift in the marriage. Upon her father's sudden death, Olive is both a moral and financial support to her frail mother, becoming a successful painter under the tutelage of a brilliant but misogynistic artist whose marriage proposal she rejects. When Mrs. Rothesay loses her eyesight, she and Olive develop a substantial bond that repairs the mother's early rejection of her disabled daughter.

After Mrs. Rothesay dies, Olive falls in love with Harold Gwynne, the widower of her best friend Sara. In a sensational subplot, Colonel Rothesay's illegitimate, mixed-race, emotionally troubled daughter briefly threatens Olive's happiness, but Olive finally marries Gwynne, helps him with his crisis of faith, and becomes the adoptive mother of his and Sara's child.


Olive's disability enriches this story of a Victorian "odd" woman, one who lacks the clear social position conferred by marriage or family fortune and must seek her own way in the world. Craik gives sustained attention to the relational construction of physical difference--within the family and other social contexts. As in our own time, the doctor's assessment of disability has a powerful influence: his diagnosis of "hopeless deformity" changes Mrs. Rothesay's initial delight with her child into resentment and fear. Adolescence is the site of other key moments of learning disability as a social role.

Wondering why her father mutters to himself that she will never marry, and why her mother insists she will look prettier with a fur mantle covering her foreshortened neck, Olive finally grasps from other young women's comments that she is not expected to be attractive to men. An excellent learner, she resolutely represses her desire for love, struggling later against this acculturation in order to allow herself to be loved and married.

The fact that Olive's destiny is domestic rather than professional makes this a conservative novel; the fact that Craik gives this typical heroine's destiny to a disabled woman, however, marks it as an iconoclastic one. The novel is a valuable representation of social constructions of disability in the Victorian era. Through its subplot, the novel comments (like Jane Eyre) on constructions of "race" and "madness" as well.


First published: 1850

Primary Source

Olive and The Half-Caste


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

Oxford and New York



Page Count