Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

According to the back cover blurb on my edition of Miss Marjoribanks, Q. D. Leavis hailed its protagonist as the ‘missing link’ between Austen’s Emma and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. I can see the Emma connections much more clearly than the Dorothea ones, except perhaps as, towards the novel’s conclusion, Lucilla rather abruptly decides she’d rather improve the tone of an impoverished village than the tone of ‘society.’ On first reading, Miss Marjoribanks seems a rather purposeless book, though pleasant enough. Lucilla’s little crises offer no real drama and do not have any effect on her character (Elizabeth Jay’s introduction describes Lucilla’s constancy of character as one of Oliphant’s goals–but is it a good idea?). She’s the same self-satisfied optimist at the end as at the beginning. And the narration offers us no commentary to offset Lucilla’s own limited perspective. On the other hand, as an account of abundant energy with no place in particular to express itself–no worthy purpose to serve–the novel is effective, though perhaps (a second reading will help me decide) the book itself is too much the same, that is, puts too much energy into something not very interesting or important. Jay seems to think the novel is a kind of expose of the limited options Lucilla faces (her example of Lucilla pacing out the drawing room for her new carpet is good), but I don’t see evidence that the novel is aware of this problem or upset on Lucilla’s behalf. In Middlemarch, in contrast, the absence of a suitable vocation to absorb Dorothea’s energy and ambition to do good is explored self-consciously at many levels. Miss Marjoribanks is not at all an intellectual novel, and not one that imbues its social observations with much historical depth. I guess that’s why I’m prepared to link it to Emma more strongly–except that Austen too seems much more aware of the problems with her protagonist, and Austen also educates both us and Emma about the risks of self-satisfaction, egotism, and interference without real sympathy or understanding. There’s a strkingly concrete quality about Miss Marjoribanks, though, that I noticed also when I read Phoebe Junior (so far, these are my only two excursions into Oliphant’s fiction). Material objects are what they are, for example, as they are in Trollope; the community and its ordinary habits have a specificity to them that makes thematic or symbolic readings seem to be missing the point. At least in this case, Oliphant’s characters lack the depth, subtlety, and appeal of so many of Trollope’s (some of them seem just gimmicky, such as Mrs Woodburn and her love of mimicry). But you do get a sense of having peered into a world that, for us, is more foreign than we usually allow. At the moment, I am inclined to put Miss Marjoribanks on the syllabus for my graduate seminar on Victorian women novelists. We will be reading Oliphant’s autobiography, in which she famously expresses resentment about George Eliot’s greater success. We will be reading both Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, two of the most celebrated 19th-century novels by women, so we will have a good opportunity to discuss why Oliphant has not considered to be in that top rank, and whether the critical tools and approaches we have honed on writers like Bronte and Eliot work applied to someone like Oliphant who seems to be doing something rather different. (This is a question I often consider with Trollope, whose novels seem to render a lot of our usual ‘sophisticated’ reading strategies absurd.)

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