In the first few chapters of Miss Marjoribanks (pronounced
“Marchbanks”), readers have the impression that Lucilla Marjoribanks is
another Emma Woodhouse, committed to staying with her widowed father
and convinced that she knows what’s best for everyone in her small
community. After boarding school and a tour of the continent, Lucilla
has returned home to Carlingford “to be a comfort to papa,” the town
physician, who would have been happy to be left alone. When the subject
of marriage arises, Lucilla comments, “If THAT'S what I wanted, I would
never have come home.” She sets out to improve the life of not only Dr.
Marjoribanks but also that of her neighbors. Bemoaning Carlingford’s
dormant socializing, she opens her drawing room for gatherings she
downplays as “my Thursdays, not parties.”
As the plot progresses, however, Lucilla’s story diverges from that of Jane Austen’s Emma. Lucille’s judgment is proven sound, and she doesn’t end up looking foolish for meddling. The satire is directed at the rest of the community. Lucilla comes to influence nearly everything that goes on in Carlingford for the better, even local elections in which she can’t vote. She earns Papa’s respect and admiration.
Although its tone is light, Miss Marjoribanks contains a serious message about women in mid-Victorian England. The resourceful Lucilla emerges as an admirable figure cleverly doing what she can to have influence despite women’s confined spheres.
Like much Victorian fiction, Miss Marjoribanks is a long book. Readers who stick with it will be rewarded by its strong characterization and its portrayal of the everyday life of 19th-century, small-town England. Oliphant is able to make readers feel they are there with Lucilla in her green drawing room.
Oliphant (1828–97) was a Scottish-born writer who produced more than 100 books out of necessity; she had to support her family. Her immense production came at the expense of her critical reputation, but she was popular in her own day and was said to be Queen Victoria’s favorite writer. Critics consider Miss Marjoribanks her best book.
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