Margaret Oliphant - Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Fittingly for a 'heroine' of Victorian literature, Lucilla, the eponymous Miss Marjoribanks of Margaret Oliphant's novel, is an ingenious sovereign. Her sphere of influence extends only to a section of upper middle-class society in the imaginary English provincial town of Carlingford, but she is both active exponent and victim of the Victorian social order. Oliphant's narrative is driven by Lucilla's confidence and emotional despotism as the young woman sets about revolutionising polite society, meanwhile establishing herself at its hub. Her self-glorification is dressed up as 'public duty', but more interesting is the way Oliphant suggests Lucilla, in her limited, domestic role, provides a mirror image of virtue and decorum which satisfies the vanities of Carlingford's middle-classes.
And while she is single-minded and practical, male characters are conversely governed by their passions. They - as Lucilla refers to her male counterparts - 'do not understand delicate matters of social politics'. Oliphant was famously opposed to women's suffrage but here, as in some of her other novels, the female protagonist has a degree of emancipation. Further, Lucilla's disinterest in marriage, 'until she was nine-and-twenty' is a snub to social convention. These modest assertions of autonomy anticipate the fuller self-realisations of female characters in the novels of Virginia Woolf, Catherine Carswell and Willa Muir.
The detached, ironic treatment of these themes is the novel's greatest strength. You're never sure whether Lucilla is really to be pitied, applauded or reproached in the manner of Thackeray's Becky Sharp, for it is indeed the 19th century English tradition to which Miss Marjoribanks belongs. Oliphant's family left Scotland when she was only ten, and most of her fiction is set in the south. With almost 100 publications to her name, including over 50 novels, she was Scottish in another aspect: her Protestant work ethic.
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