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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

"Miss Marjoribanks" is a big, thick, hilarious book about middle-class Victorian society. Margaret Oliphant is often compared to Jane Austen but her humor is more subversive and ironic. Lucilla Marjoribanks is only 18 when she returns home from boarding school, determined to forego marriage in order to devote her life to "being a comfort" to her widowed papa and a "leader" of her very tiny provincial community.  Lucilla is described as a  physically large and imposing young woman, possessed of singleminded will and formidable energy, and she is quite a comic marvel as she sets about making over Carlingford society in her image. She does this by redecorating the drawing room, hosting Thursday evening get-togethers, doing a bit of matchmaking, a smidgeon of charity, and "setting an example for the young people".  She's a legend in her own mind, a Napolean, a genius at micromanaging the lives of others, who figures that she has ten years to accomplish her goals before she "starts to go off", like an old piece of cheese. She never goes up against the stultifying social conventions of the time. Oh no, she embraces them wholeheartedly, because Lucilla is nothing if not conventional. She expects marriage proposals to come her way regularly, and sees them as as her just due, but at the same time she's careful to keep her emotions "unengaged". She "respects" religion and the clergy, but never actually believes in anything, because that would be so Low Church. She bosses and patronizes people so charmingly that she engenders only admiration, not resentment. Friends and neighbors get a tear in their eye, and think "dear girl", while she's walking all over them. Her strategizing and plotting are so complex that it sometimes was a challenge just keeping up with her... but never fear, Lucilla has it all figured out. Yet there is an underlying sadness and a threat, which becomes apparent  2/3 of the way through the book, when there is a sudden reversal of fortunes. And it is brought home that the position of an unmarried middle-class woman in Victorian society was precarious indeed, and there really is a gaping chasm below Lucilla's feet. The conclusion of the book is not as triumphant as you might wish, because the reality is not as rosy as Lucilla's determination to see it.