The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant
Born to a very religious family in 1829, Laurence’s parents, Sir Anthony and Lady Maria maintained an intimate family bond that would continue throughout Laurence’s life. He was drawn to traveling and would eventually convince his parents to delay his schooling, so he could accompany them while they toured Europe. He quite enjoyed these excursions and began to keep a journal that acquired him his first book, A Journey to Katmandu (the Capital of Napaul). When the trip concluded, Laurence abandoned the family law career path and made travel writing his sole ambition, which would eventually take him to Russia, Japan, and Canada where he would become personal secretary to Canada’s Governor General Lord Elgin. In fact, “he had actually written most of the international Canadian-American trade agreements back in the early 1850’s.”
Sir Anthony, Laurence’s father, died suddenly leaving Lady Maria and Laurence completely devastated. The pair sought out mediums to conduct seances attempting to reach Sir Anthony in the afterlife, none of which were successful. However, they stumbled upon Thomas Lake Harris, a self-proclaimed prophet who asserted he was the connection between humanity and the Deity. Laurence was constantly torn between his radical religious upbringing and his very present sexual desires, and to expel his physical cravings he and his mother moved to Harris’ community, the Brotherhood of the New Life, in Brocton, New York. They were instructed by Harris to manual labor and went long periods without seeing each other. After a few years in Brocton, Laurence was allowed to move to New York City and was employed as the Manager of the Direct United States Cable Company. Nevertheless, he was lonely and felt ostracized from his family. He needed a new purpose. Eventually he was led to aid the Jewish people’s return to the Holy Land–Palestine, using his negotiating skills to obtain a lease for the land.
Bart Casey’s undertaking of the complete biography of Laurence Oliphant was meticulously and impeccably researched, and wholly and thoroughly well-told. The narrative read like a work of fiction, and at times sounded allegorical in nature, but the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. Why would an intelligent man like Laurence Oliphant be swayed, and some might even say controlled, by someone like Thomas Lake Harris? The answer, most likely, is a recipe of extreme religious predisposition, coupled with a self-critical view to get his sexual urges under control.
The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant is rich with historical accounts surrounding Laurence’s extraordinary life; a life of journalism that provided him notoriety and affluence. A story like Oliphant’s would’ve produced a saturated biography, and yet Casey provided ample information in a clear, comprehensive and chronological manner. The author meticulously compiled letters and journals of Laurence’s to let Laurence speak for himself through his journalistic prose. Laurence Oliphant’s life was beautifully captured in this revealing biography.
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