March 23, 2007

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.)


Anonymous said...

If you are going to put Margaret Oliphant on your reading list I'd suggest "Hester" instead, available as an Oxford Classic. As a story of a female head of a family banking business, it provides a much clearer critique of the limited options for Victorian women, while containing the descriptive strengths of Miss Marjoribanks. Comparisons with George Elliot are somewhat unfair- few 19cth noveists were in that league- but Oliphant is easily the equal of a number of better known writers (Gaskell, Collins, Braddon say) and deserves a place in the canon.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thank you for the suggestion! I'll get ahold of a copy as soon as I can.

Anonymous said...

I recently read ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ and was rather disappointed. Admittedly, the opening chapters were charming enough, but I soon found that the novel as a whole was completely lacking in subtlety. You are right to point out that this text is an exploration of the limited options available to Victorian women, but Oliphant continually beats us over the head with this subject. Indeed, the mock-heroic language that saturates ‘Miss Marjoribanks’ seems particularly heavy-handed. How many times do we need to be told that Lucilla’s only goal in life is to be ‘a comfort to her dear Papa?’ How many times does Oliphant need to describe Lucilla ‘reigning’ over the drawing room before we get the point? I don’t see the comparisons between Oliphant and Gaskell, Collins, or Braddon. Gaskell, I would argue, is an infinitely better novelist, and Collins and Braddon (at least in the early stages of their careers) wrote entirely different kinds of novels. I am more inclined to compare this novel to something like Disraeli’s ‘Sybil,’ a text that, like ‘Miss Marjoribanks,’ sets out to do something admirable but ultimately fails in pulling it off.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I agree that, based on my admittedly limited exposure to Oliphant, comparisons to Braddon and Collins seem beside the point. Gaskell seems like a fairer mark, but North and South and Wives and Daughters at least do seem to me much better than the two Oliphant novels I've read so far (I don't think Mary Barton, though it is important and compelling in many ways, is a very good novel formally or artistically). And Trollope also is working in a similar vein of domestic/social realism. My original comparisons to Austen and George Eliot were prompted by Q. D. Leavis's remark. Perhaps it is not fair to make comparisons to the very best--but on the other hand, why not, if only to clarify what makes them stand out as excellent?

I found the "comfort to her dear papa" refrain mildly amusing, a pale shadow of the tics and mannerisms Dickens gives his characters. But overall it's a novel in which very little happens and what does happen, does not seem to mean that much (outlining the plot to my mathematically-inclined son, I came up with six 'events', which by his calculation meant each one got about 83 pages...)

I am curious to read Hester, less because of any particular interest in novels that "critique the limited options for Victorian women" (such novels are not hard to find, of course), but because I'd like my judgment of Oliphant's merits to be based on a better sample.

I'm sorry the last two comments have been made anonymously: I'd be happy to know who is reading my notes here!

Anne said...

I'm about to teach Miss M for the second time; it's one of my very favourite Victorian novels, and I think far far better than "Hester". I fell in love with Lucilla the first time I read the book -- laughed out loud in more than one place -- and particularly admired how unflinchingly Oliphant takes us through individual scenes, providing dialogue that seems almost "screenplay ready". Unlike much greater novelists (such as C Bronte and Eliot), Oliphant rarely takes refuge in the gracefully narrated ellipsis. Even Austen, for all her brilliance, resorted to the likes of "Elinor tried to unite truth and civility in a few short sentences" or the like.
Compare that stylistic short cut with the astonishing scenes that occur one after the other in this work; Lucilla vanquishing Mrs Woodburn, or outmanouevering Mr Bury, or holding the Archdeacon with her eyes during that electrifying dinner. Oliphant calls her a genius early on -- Chapter IV -- and while Lucilla is also mercilessly exposed as materialistic, insensitive, monstrously egoistic, complacent, and ruthless when the occasion demands it, she is also generous, open, clear sighted about others and herself, and -- often -- right.
In the end, I think of MM as a political novel; and if Lucilla must exercise her political genius (for so it is) in a radically confined sphere, she does more genuine good than most of those around her, with the possible exception of her father. I stand firmly with Q D on this novel and this character; and it's taking nothing away from Middlemarch -- a far greater achievement -- or Emma -- a much more subtle book with a more delicate touch -- to say that Oliphant's larger than life (or at least, than usual) heroine has qualities superior to either Dorothea or Miss Woodhouse.
My students, by the way, loved Miss M ... eventually. At first they hated her, but within a short while came round; and in fact, their seminar presentation focussed on the way in which the novel teaches the reader how to see Lucilla. It changes you, this book, they said; and I think they may be right.

I hope you enjoyed teaching the novel; I'm about to inflict it on a class of hapless first year students, and can only hope they'll survive the experience. Of course, if I could get previous generations through Melville's The Confidence Man, then it may all work out!

Anne Furlong
Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

Rohan Maitzen said...


I appreciate your comments on Miss Marjoribanks--and your courage in "inflicting" it on first-year students. I would not be so daring, if only because I find first-year students are easily overwhelmed and bored by 19thC novels I consider relatively short and full of action. In the end, I went with Hester for the seminar that year, but enough of my students were interested in it (and indeed wrote their papers on it) that I am encouraged to keep rotating Oliphant's novels into my class lists.

The Lone Bear said...

Rohan, first let me say that I appreciated your review of "Miss Marjoribanks" here. I wonder if Oliphant is really creating a character, in 'Lucilla,' that is really more akin to that created later by E.F. Benson in his terrific 'Mapp & Lucia' series, i.e., more comic, satirical? Just my two cents.

I also agree with comments above that while interesting to compare to Austen, Eliot, or Gaskell (at least her later works), Oliphant is a different writer and maybe more akin to Trollope. I want to think about this some more too. Cheers! Chris