Friday, August 14, 2020

Deep shallows: Miss Marjoribanks

Margaret Oliphant, before 1894 (detail). Photo: Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn. 
Image source: National Portrait Gallery, London

With my interest in the novelists influenced by Jane Austen, I'm surprised that I haven't come across Margaret Oliphant before. But then, perhaps that's not so surprising.

Oliphant does not appear on any of the "best books" lists I've discussed previously on E&I: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 100 novels, and The 100 greatest British novels. She is absent even from many lists focussing on the 19th century. Barnes & Noble's "45 [actually 46] Novels Written in the 19th Century That Deserve a Place on the Modern Bookshelf" includes, incredibly, only six women authors; Oliphant is not among them. [1] She also does not appear in the top 500 books on Goodreads "Best Books of the 19th Century". [2]

Remarkably, this neglect began in the 19th century. No work by her appears on the Daily Telegraph's list of the "The 100 Best Novels in the World" published in 1899; it seems that less than two years after her death her novels were largely forgotten. And this is strange, because she was quite popular in her day.  "For most of the 1860s," writes critic John Pemble, "Margaret Oliphant outsold not only Trollope, but Dickens and Thackeray too." [3]

What sparked my interest was an appreciation by Tom Crewe in the London Review of Books of Mrs. Oliphant's 1866 novel Miss Marjoribanks (pronounced, I learn, "Miss Marchbanks"). Crewe writes that Oliphant's novel "is surely the most interesting and entertaining example of a woman writing about men in the 19th century." It is the next-to-last novel in her Chronicles of Carlingford series [4]; if that series owes something to Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire and Gaskell's Cranford stories, Miss Marjoribanks has a truly original heroine. Crewe quotes the critic Q.D. Leavis' description of the novel as a bridge between Austen's Emma and Eliot's Middlemarch, and Lucilla Marjoribanks as "'a triumphant intermediary between their Emma and Dorothea, and, incidentally, more entertaining, more impressive and more likeable than either.'" [5]

She is certainly wittier, although one of the running jokes in the book is that every other character thinks Lucilla is joking when she's actually quite serious. Just returned from school, Lucilla constantly reassures her widower father (and everyone else within earshot) that her chief concern is to be of comfort to him. She is completely sincere in her own way, but Dr. Marjoribanks, like Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Bennet and Emma's Mr. Woodhouse before him, has settled into a life of easy habit, and has his doubts:
'I suppose you mean to give parties, and drive me out of my senses with dancing and singing.—No, Lucilla, you must wait till you get married—that will never do for me.'
'Dear papa,' said Lucilla sweetly, 'it is so dreadful to hear you say parties. Everybody knows that the only thing I care for in life is to be a comfort to you; and as for dancing, I saw at once that was out of the question. Dancing is all very well,' said Miss Marjoribanks thoughtfully; 'but it implies quantities of young people—and young people can never make what I call society. It is Evenings I mean to have, papa.' [6]
And have them she does, while her father retreats to his library, where "the sense of security and tranquillity with which he established himself at the fire, undisturbed by the gay storm that raged outside, gave a certain charm to his retirement. He rubbed his hands and listened, as a man listens to the wind howling out of doors, when he is in shelter and comfort." [7]

Margaret Oliphant by Frederick Sandys, 1881. 

To my eyes, Lucilla also prefigures Middlemarch's Rosamond Vincy, but without Rosamond's essential frivolity. Like Rosamond, Lucilla is highly concerned with appearances: dress, decoration, and music as a form of women's self-display. But unlike Rosamond, Lucilla is not interested in these things in order to attract men, whom she thinks of as "that inferior branch of the human family." [8] As she explains to her neighbor when inviting her to dinner,
'Dear Mrs Chiley. . .it doesn't matter in the least what you wear; there are only to be gentlemen, you know, and one never dresses for gentlemen. You must keep that beautiful black velvet for another time.'

'Well, my dear,' said Mrs Chiley, 'I am long past that sort of thing—but the men think, you know, that it is always for them we dress.'

'Yes,' said Miss Marjoribanks, 'their vanity is something dreadful—but it is one of my principles never to dress unless there are ladies.' [9]
Lucilla's real aim is "to revolutionise society in Carlingford," which she finds in a "lamentable condition"; in pursuit of this goal, "young men, like old men and the other less interesting members of the human family, were simple material for Miss Marjoribanks's genius, out of which she had a great result to produce." [10]

She succeeds. At the second of her Thursday Evenings ("her brilliant but perilous undertaking"), Lucilla comes downstairs to find her house thronged with all Carlingford society; it is so packed that no one can move, and guests are standing on the stairs waiting to get in.
But the scene changed when the rightful sovereign entered the gay but disorganized dominion where her subjects attended her. Before any one knew how it was done, Miss Marjoribanks had re-established order, and what was still more important, made room. 'You girls have no business to get into corners. The corners are for the people that can talk. It is one of my principles always to flirt in the middle of the company,' said Lucilla; and again, as happened so often, ignorant people laughed, and thought it a bon mot. But it is needless to inform the more intelligent persons who understand Miss Marjoribanks, that it was by no means a bon mot, but expressed Lucilla's convictions with the utmost sincerity. [11]
The mock-heroic terms in which Lucilla's drawing-room triumphs are presented (monarchy, revolution, naval maneuvers, knightly combat) invite us to treat her ironically, but never contemptuously. Ruth Bernard Yeazell noted that "the sustained irony with which Oliphant treats her heroine co-exists with an exuberant delight in Lucilla's 'own consciousness of superior Power'." [12] And as Q.D. Leavis, who led the modern rediscovery of Oliphant, wrote,
Though we may start with the fear that Lucilla is so limited that she will bore us, this is presently seen to be far from being so, since it is soon apparent that she hands out her stock phrases, the acceptable clichés of the age, as passwords, camouflaging herself in conventional clothing to conceal her originality and get her own way. . .Imperceptibly Lucilla grows ever more interesting and endeared to us as ten years pass before our eyes. [13]
Oliphant shows us the depths of Lucilla's shallowness: the momentous and very real concerns—and dare we say, feelings?—that roil beneath Lucilla's imperturbable surface, and the many subtle contests of strategy and shifts of power that occur over the course of each of her Evenings.

Title page of Volume II of Miss Marjoribanks, Blackwood, 1866. 
Image source: Internet Archive

The disdain for and exasperation with the male sex expressed by almost every female character of Miss Marjoribanks seem to have had their root in Margaret Oliphant's life experience. When she was 24, Margaret Oliphant Wilson, already a published writer, married her maternal cousin Frank Oliphant, a painter and stained-glass designer. In Miss Marjoribanks, the drawing-teacher father of Rose and Barbara Lake is portrayed as having pretensions far above his talent; he may be a partial portrait of Oliphant's husband. Frank died seven years into their marriage of the tuberculosis he could no longer conceal from his wife. He had taken the family to Rome for its supposedly salutary climate, and died there; Margaret was left pregnant, stranded in a foreign country with two small children (three others had died in infancy), and £1000 in debt. She had to write her way into solvency, and keep writing to maintain a precarious financial stability.

She supported two brothers (one an alcoholic, one a widowed business failure), two nieces, a nephew, and her two adult sons. She toiled to send the nephew and both her sons to Eton, but none of them were able to sustain gainful employment; ultimately both her sons died in their 30s, predeceasing Margaret, as did all her children. In her Autobiography she wrote that "life is full of dreadful repetitions." [14]

It was most likely her success and her prolific output that allowed her husband, sons and nephew to choose to be "idle and aimless." [15] Oliphant was a writing machine: she produced 98 novels (more than double the novelistic output of Trollope), 25 non-fiction books and translations, 50 short stories and over 300 articles. The mind boggles. She wrote so much that she told her publisher she had developed a permanent hole in her forefinger "from excessive use of that little implement," her pen. [16] She thought of her novels as "the shadow life into which I dare not put all my experiences, nor disclose my heart." [17]

The recently widowed Margaret Oliphant, ca. 1860. From The Bookman
Image source: Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two

She could not help but compare herself to other writers. Of George Eliot, whom she knew personally, she wondered "if I am a little envious of her?. . .I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children. . .Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of?" [18] Of Eliot and George Sand, she wrote that they "make me half inclined to cry over my poor little unappreciated self. . .I would not buy their fame with their disadvantages, but I do feel very small, very obscure beside them, rather a failure all round." [19] This from the woman who published more than ten dozen books.

Oliphant—perhaps wanting to avoid taking on another dependent—never remarried. Comparing herself to Charlotte Brontë, whose heroines obsess over the men they love and flee alone across moors on stormy nights, she wrote, "I have learned to take perhaps more a man's view of mortal affairs,—to feel that the love between men and women, the marrying and giving in marriage, occupy in fact so small a portion of existence or thought." [20]

Her nonchalance about the institution is reflected in the attitudes of her heroine. While Lucilla, like Emma Woodhouse, spends a great deal of time matchmaking, she views her own potential suitors with detachment, weighing their advantages and disadvantages coolly. When it appears that her two most likely suitors are about to marry other women, Lucilla takes the news with equanimity.
Mrs Chiley kissed her young friend once more with lingering meaning. "My dear, I don't know what They mean," she said, with indignation; "everybody knows men are great fools where women are concerned—but I never knew what idiots they were till now; and you are too good for them, my darling!" said Mrs Chiley, with indignant tenderness. Perhaps Miss Marjoribanks was in some respects of the same way of thinking. . .To have Mrs Mortimer and Barbara Lake preferred to her did not wound Lucilla's pride—one can be wounded in that way only by one's equals. She thought of it with a certain mild pity and charitable contempt. Both these two men had had the chance of having her, and this was how they had chosen! And there can be little wonder if Miss Marjoribanks's compassion for them was mingled with a little friendly and condescending disdain. [21]
No weeping, wailing, or gnashing of teeth here. Instead of the heroine's relationships with men, the focus of Miss Marjoribanks, as in other Oliphant novels, is her "complex relationships with other women." [22]

Margaret Oliphant had an unfavorable view of her own work. "I shall not leave anything behind me that will live," she wrote. [23] She was wrong. Q.D. Leavis wrote of certain scenes in Miss Marjoribanks that "I know nothing finer of its kind in all Victorian fiction" and that they were "greater than in an Austen novel." [24] High praise indeed, but it is difficult to disagree with her. As long as there are readers who appreciate wicked irony, keen wit, emotional complexity, and independent, self-directed women, Miss Marjoribanks will be (re)discovered, and treasured.

  1. Also missing from the Barnes & Noble list: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Anne Brontë, Maria Edgeworth, George Eliot, Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Sand, Mary Shelley, and many others. 
  2. Hester is #594, and Miss Marjoribanks #788, although its average rating of 3.77 out of 5 puts it in the company of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (#98, 3.77), Charlotte Brontë's Villette (#64, 3.76), Thackeray's Vanity Fair (#51, 3.79), and Dickens' Great Expectations (#18, 3.78). Books on the Goodreads list are ranked by "score," which seems to be some combination of average rating and number of votes, rather than solely by average rating.
  3. John Pemble, "Besieged by Female Writers,"  London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 21, 3 November 2016.
  4. The other works in the series: "The Executor" [short story] (Blackwood's Magazine, May 1861); The Rector and the Doctor's Family (Blackwood, 1863); Salem Chapel (Blackwood, 1863); The Perpetual Curate (Blackwood, 1864); and Phoebe Junior: A last Chronicle of Carlingford (Hurst and Blackett, 1876). List adapted from Richard Stotesbury, "Q.D.Leavis: An Appreciation (with a select bibliography)."
  5. Tom Crewe, "On the Shelf," London Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 14, 16 July 2020. p.16.
  6. Margaret Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks, Zodiac Press, 1969, Ch. VI. 
  7. —, Ch. XII.
  8. —, Ch. II.
  9. —, Ch. VII.
  10. —, Ch. II, Ch. III and Ch. VIII.
  11. —, Ch. VI. 
  12. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, "Doubling the Oliphant," London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 17, 7 September 1995.
  13. —, Introduction by Q.D. Leavis.
  14. Quoted in John Sutherland, "Nelly Gets Her Due," London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 21, 8 November 1990.
  15. Quoted in  Susannah Clapp, "Criminal Elastic," London Review of Books,
    Vol. 9, No. 3, 5 February 1987.
  16. Quoted in Yeazell.
  17. Quoted in Sutherland.
  18. Quoted in Crewe.
  19. Quoted in Yeazell.
  20. Quoted in Crewe.
  21. Miss Marjoribanks, Ch. XXXI.
  22. Finola Austin, "Review: Hester, Margaret Oliphant (1873)," The Secret Victorianist, 2 January 2015.
  23. Quoted in Sutherland. 
  24. Miss Marjoribanks, Introduction by Q.D. Leavis.