Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
Posted by JaneGS
I've been hearing about Miss Marjoribanks off and on for awhile now on other classics-loving book blogs, and when the GoodReads Victorians group announced that it would be a group read this fall, I jumped at the chance to read along.
Miss Marjoribanks is by the prolific Margaret Oliphant. Published in 1865, it is in her Carlingford series, which she modeled after Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire series. Carlingford is a mythical town in England, and the series chronicles the lives and fortunes of various inhabitants--sometimes focusing on one neighborhood and the mores of it, and sometimes on another. Carlingford is, according to Oliphant, "essentially a quiet place" with "no trade, no manufactures, no anything in particular."
Miss Marjoribanks tells the story of Lucilla Marjoribanks, only daughter of the town's doctor. Her mother dies early in the book, and as soon as Lucilla finishes with her schooling she returns to Carlingford to care for her father and manage the town's society.
Lucilla is a completely unique heroine--I've never encountered anyone quite like Lucilla, either in the flesh or in print or on the stage. She's a cross between Austen's Emma Woodhouse, Stella Poste (from Cold Comfort Farm), and Elle Woods (from Legally Blonde). She has a super-abundance of self-confidence, self-consciously runs shallow (yes, there is nothing more important than getting the exact shade of green wallpaper for her drawing room so as to complement her complexion), loves to be in charge and should be (no one else comes close to her management abilities), has blinders on when it comes to her own heart, but is supremely big-hearted.
The narration is charming--ironic, indulgent, and self-conscious--very similar to Trollope in this, but thankfully without Trollope's tendency to insert lectures on ecclesiastical law and form. Easy to read, but long-winded at times--after all Oliphant wrote for the money (she was a widow and had children and extended family to support) and spun out the story in serialization for much longer than she needed to. That said, it was fun to read and I only found it tiresome occasionally. The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition that I read described the tone of Oliphant and Miss Marjoribanks in particular as sardonic--perhaps I took it too much at face value, but I felt it more ironic than cynical.
There are some wonderful other characters in Miss Marjoribanks as well. Tom, Lucilla's cousin, could've been a model for Georgette Heyer's scattered-but-enthusiastic young lover hero type. There is a brother-sister combo (Mr. Cavendish and his sister Mrs. Woodburn) who are not fair from Henry and Mary Crawford, although Mrs. Woodburn's thing is to mimic people, which makes her an interesting cross between contemptible and pitiful. There are a pair of sisters, Rose and Barbara Lake, many rungs down on the social scale from the divine Miss M, who are utterly fascinating to me--the first is a fiery, tiny Pre-Rafaelite artist and the second is a talented singer who just wants a nice wedding.
The novel surprised me many times with its modern feel. Many of the characters felt much more Edwardian than Victorian, and Lucilla herself freely acknowledged how much better at politics she was than the men she championed. The men acknowledge this too!
Oliphant's Lucilla is a portrait of a strong, capable female who makes all her own decisions as well as those of the men in her life but is not a shrew (not a trace of Becky Sharp here), or a doormat (nothing of Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield), or pious (much as I love Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, she can be holier than thou).
Much like Oliphant herself, Lucilla is resourceful, practical, and far-seeing. I loved spending time with her, which is good because my version clocked in at just under 500 pages.
Miss Marjoribanks is one of the books I read for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and fulfills the category of author new to me. But not for long, I plan to read more of Oliphant's Carlingford series in 2015!