Saturday, March 12, 2011

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

Edition: Miss Marjoribanks

Margaret Oliphant, already a well-known writer at the time, published Miss Marjoribanks in 1866. Oliphant's series for Blackwood's, "The Chronicles of Carlingford," had been in progress and Miss Marjoribanks was the fifth novel in the series. Though Oliphant was a well-known literary figure of her time, she has only recently received critical attention from modern scholarship.

After the death of Mrs. Marjoribanks, her daughter Lucilla, away at school, imagines for herself a heroic role as comforting daughter to her dear, widowed father. Full with the dramatic intention of fainting into her father's arms, it turns out that the stoic Dr. Marjoribanks doesn’t really need emotional comfort. She is sent back to school, and she resolves that after finishing with school that she will go on the Grand Tour in order to prepare herself to come back and "revolutionize" the middle-class town of Carlingford. Back from the Grand Tour, Lucilla gets to work, dismissing her visiting cousin Tom's confession of love to her and repeating to all that she wishes only to be "a comfort to [her] papa" and that she will likely not marry for ten years. Lucilla's "work" involves re-doing the drawing room, and creating society around an event which came to be known as Thursday "evenings" (not parties, she insists). At one of these so-called evenings, Lucilla brings out Barbara Lake, a drawing-master's daughter, with whom Lucilla sings a duet. Meanwhile, a wealthy and respectable gentleman (likely in line to be M.P. of Carlingford upon the death of the old member, Chiltern) shows some interest in Lucilla and she begins to think this might be a useful match for her since she was so interested in "political economy" (at least in the sphere of social gatherings). Barbara too, is interested in Cavendish. For Lucilla, however, marrying Cavendish is just a passing idea, and while Barbara resents Lucilla and tries to inspire her jealousy, Lucilla remains calm and concerned only with the social management at Grange Lane. At one of her Thursday evenings, an Archdeacon from out of town shows up (he is a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Chiley, an older couple) and mysteriously, Cavendish runs out before the Archdeacon sees him.

Mr. Cavendish is missing for a long while, and Barbara falls ill with Cavendish's departure. Rose, sister to Barbara and a young artist, called the "pre-Raphaelite" in the narrative, goes to Lucilla to talk about Barbara, but Lucilla thwarts her by talking of the Archdeacon and inviting Rose to the upcoming Thursday evening. Lucilla imagines that Rose will be able to talk to the Archdeacon about art, and that this would provide a good pretense for mixing the sexes at the party; with the exit of the great flirt Cavendish, Lucilla has had much trouble with integrating the sexes. Rose, idealistic about artists as occupying a kind of "classless" position in society, is suddenly faced with the prospect/anxiety of making this theory work in practice. On Thursday evening, the Archdeacon is about to reveal something about one "Mr. Kavan's" falsehoods but Lucilla effectively silences him, realizing that he might be talking of "Cavendish." Lucilla diverts everyone's attention by bringing out a sketch which she presumed to be Rose's (it's actually her brother Willie's) and the Archdeacon praises it, drowning out Rose's protests that it isn't hers. Rose learns that what's important to society is not the art but the person talking about the art, and the narrative cruelly ends the chapter with comments that Lucilla is actually the supreme artist: "the young Preraphaelite was at this moment no better than a graphic little pencil in the greater artist's hand." Soon after this episode, Mr. Cavendish returns, going to see Lucilla when the Archdeacon was out of town for a few days, and nearly proposes to her but for Mrs. Chiley accidentally interrupting. Mrs. Woodburn, Cavendish's sister, scolds him for being cowardly and encourages him to propose again, in order to make good connections and to be done with his spotty past (the details of this past are not revealed, at this point, to the reader). Wandering around, Cavendish finds himself at the Lakes' house, meeting with a rather emotional Barbara.

One day when Lucilla took the Archdeacon into a school where she had set up one Mrs. Mortimer to manage (a widow, first recommended to her by the rector Mr. Bury as a chaperone to her). It turns out that the two know each other. Lucilla gracefully exits the scene, but later learns from interviews with Mrs. Mortimer and the Archdeacon that the Archdeacon has for years been trying to convince Mrs. Mortimer (a distant cousin of his) to take up a lawsuit against an unnamed impostor who took Mrs. Mortimer's inheritance. Lucilla clearly suspects the impostor was Mr. Cavendish, but the narrative doesn't reveal this suspicion openly. Meanwhile, Rose Lake asks Lucilla for help because Barbara has been secretly going out evenings with Mr. Cavendish. Lucilla tries to track down Cavendish. Lucilla tracks down Cavendish while he was on a walk with Barbara, stealing him from under her nose and dismissing her as less important than the matters that she had to discuss with him. Lucilla effectively tells Cavendish that she knows all about his past but that he must trust her to fix everything. Reluctantly, Cavendish attends the next Thursday get together, where Lucilla successfully manages the situation between the Archdeacon, Mrs. Mortimer, and Cavendish without the rest of Carlingford even knowing what happened. Lucilla's management renders the Archdeacon's accusations less salient. After the ordeal, the Archdeacon and Mrs. Mortimer realize their love for one another, and become engaged. Lucilla then pushes Cavendish to marry Barbara (since he will no longer quite occupy the high opinion that he had before) hoping to bring about two marriages, but instead, Cavendish goes off to the Continent, not to return for ten years. Barbara also leaves, to Rose's horror, to become a governess.

The narrative shifts to ten years later, the "second part" of Lucilla's "career." Lucilla sets up one Ashburton for M.P. of Carlingford after the death of Chiltern. Her strategy is to profess repeatedly that she didn't understand politics, but in doing so, effectively rendering political positions moot. Ashburton successfully runs on a platform of being a "good man" who would serve Carlingford's interest. During the election season, Cavendish suddenly returns, and gets mad at Lucilla for having turned the town against his candidacy. As all of this is happening, Aunt Jemima, Tom's mother and Dr. Marjoribanks's sister-in-law comes to town, and behind the scenes, has fantasies that Lucilla and Tom will eventually get together. All of these proceedings are interrupted by Dr. Marjoribanks's sudden death. Unfortunately, it turns out that he has squandered his money in bad investments and hasn't left Lucilla with much at all. Against the advice of all of her friends in Carlingford, Lucilla decides to stay at the house, instead of moving out where a single woman could better support herself. The election goes on, and at first it seems that Cavendish was gaining an advantage (having secured the Rector Bury's support by saying that he was a penitent). Cavendish lost some face because he had gone over to the Lakes's house when Barbara had returned, and was seen having spent some time on a Saturday evening with her. During this meeting, Cavendish feels tender towards her, because she, like him, had grown stout ("gone off") and she, unlike Lucilla, doesn't judge him for his changed appearance. Perhaps because of this episode, Ashburton ends up winning, and thinking himself victor in this area, he fancies winning Lucilla as well. Just as Ashburton is about to propose to her, Tom comes to town, and Lucilla decides to accept him (though in a sort of passive way--Tom asks her to choose "him or me," referring to Ashburton or himself, and Lucilla says simply that it is not to be Ashburton). Her passivity, however, is only for a moment: she tells Tom that he is to buy Marchbank, a more humble estate in a neighboring area, and that they are to move there. There, Lucilla might have something to do: namely, to work to make the lives of the poor people of the village better, and perhaps eventually to make Tom the M.P. of the county. In a word, Lucilla Marjoribanks needs things to do, and this is something that Tom would offer her and not Ashburton.  The narrative concludes with Lucilla scanning Marchbank before her: "[T]here rose up before her vision of a parish saved, a village reformed, a county reorganised, and a triumphant election at the end..."

The narrative voice of Miss Marjoribanks throughout adopts a position of ironic distance from Lucilla's manifold activities, rendering the tone of the work overall to be rather comic. Though the narrator is ostensibly a "biographer" or "historian" for Lucilla Marjoribanks, this narrator's claims to seriously admire Lucilla's equanimity and her "career" are clearly tongue-in-cheek. Even when the narrator explicitly defends Lucilla against potentially unjust feelings from the reader, it is tongue-in-cheek: in short, we aren't meant to take Lucilla's projects seriously and the ironic distance always make her seem self-important.

And yet, Miss Marjoribanks is also a clear critique of the constraints placed upon women by Victorian society. Lucilla is the portrait of a talented and smart woman who has no other outlet for her need to manage things and do things than the social politics of Carlingford. Because the social politics of Carlingford are so trivial, we are meant to laugh at Lucilla, but her pathetically comic situation is very much the fault of the society. For example, she doesn't have a vote, and isn't allowed to be interested in political issues, so all that is left to her is the comical (but successful!) management the election by setting up and helping Ashburton to win a popularity contest. In the end, she can't marry Ashburton, because if she did, she would have no outlet for her energies. Marrying Tom means that she can be the boss of him, and through him, she will be able to exert her organizational skills on the population at Marchbank.

Lucilla constantly counters feminine stereotypes throughout the novel. Lucilla's reactions to socially difficult or charged moments are always calmer than those of everyone else around her. Frequently, the narrative asserts this in a negative sort of way, for example, saying that the reader might expect Lucilla to be staying up all night thinking about awkward social situations, but that she in fact slept well. Lucilla has many "masculine" personality traits as well, not the least of which was "curiosity"--in moments where she might have a little bit of social anxiety, her curiosity ends up trumping anxiety and her decisions to meddle are more often than not a consequence of her intense curiosity.

Finally, it might be worth mentioning that even the less impressive women in Oliphant's narrative, like Barbara Lake, counter feminine stereotypes. Though horridly sentimental in her attachment to Cavendish, it turns out that she doesn't really care all that much for Cavendish at all, the narrative reveals. Indeed, Barbara's attachment to Cavendish comes out of her sense of rivalry with Lucilla: Barbara from the start resents Lucilla's "helping" her, and Lucilla's patronizing attitudes. The narrative gives: "For to tell the truth, if Miss Marjoribanks was not jealous, the victory was but half a victory after all." Barbara doesn't get that much satisfaction when Cavendish is interested in her if Lucilla wasn't jealous.

1 comment:

Just Donald's Thoughts.... said...

So glad to have found your blog.