Miss Majoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

Miss Lucilla Marjoribanks (pronounced March-banks) falls into the same character type as Emma (from Emma by Jane Austen) and Dolly Levi (from Hello, Dolly!) of busybody character we are supposed to like. We are supposed to like them because wanting to ‘fix’ things for other people without being asked makes them ‘nice’. I usually don’t like these types of characters, because I don’t deem their actions as being nice. The thing that usually rubs missmarjoribanks02olipme the wrong way is that when they are trying to ‘fix’ things, they don’t put themselves into the other person’s shoes. Now this might be the point and where the character needs to grow, but to me forcing your own world view onto someone else, no matter the motive, isn’t nice. So I faced quite a conundrum when reading as to why I liked Miss Marjoribanks.

The book (published 1866) opens with Miss Marjoribanks age 15 whom have just lost her mother. She is travelling home from school imagining how she will be the rock her father will lean on during this difficult time. These are quickly shown to be teenage fantasies. While she clearly wants to support her father, she is the one broken down and crying. Her father, Dr. Marjoribanks, is the calm, collected, though a bit distant, one and the rock she leans on. Here we see the start of her busybody character, the one to ‘fix’, and we are clearly told that she is wrong. Her father doesn’t need anyone ‘fixing’ anything for him. When we see Miss Marjoribanks again it’s four years later and she has just been abroad. She comes back home with two 514761designs. One is to “be a comfort to my dear papa”, the other is to fix herself a place in society at Carlingford. While she does try to ‘fix’ things, it’s clear she isn’t just doing to be ‘nice’. One of the first things she does to ‘help’ is when she meets Barbara. Barbara comes from a poor family of artists. What draws Miss Marjoribanks to Barbara is that she has the perfect voice to complement Miss Marjoribank’s singing voice. She therefore introduces Barbara into the upper social sphere, something that wouldn’t have been possible for Barbara to reach on her own. While Dr. Marjoribanks praises Miss Marjoribanks for helping someone less fortunate, it’s clear Miss Marjoribanks didn’t do it to be nice. The result of this is also that Barbara gets indignant and starts resenting Miss Marjoribanks as she felt talked down to.

This might be why I like the character. She isn’t painted as ‘nice’ and people do get angry because they feel she is stuck up on herself. It paints a realistic picture. Yet, when people come to her and ask for help, as with the widow Mrs. Mortimer, it works out well. This shows that it’s not wanting to help that’s bad, but that it has to happen on the other person’s premise. I also like the book for explaining why Miss Marjoribanks is so focused on society and sociatal problems.

Lucilla, though she said nothing about a sphere, was still more or less in that condition of mind which has been so often and so fully described to the British public—when the ripe female intelligence, not having the natural resource of a nursery and a husband to manage, turns inwards, and begins to “make a protest” against the existing order of society, and to call the world to account for giving it no due occupation—and to consume itself. She was not the woman to make protests, nor claim for herself the doubtful honours of a false position; but she felt all the same that at her age she had outlived the occupations that were sufficient for her youth. To be sure, there were still the dinners to attend to, a branch of human affairs worthy of the weightiest consideration, and she had a house of her own, as much as if she had been half a dozen times married; but still there are instincts which go even beyond dinners, and Lucilla had become conscious that her capabilities were greater than her work. She was a Power in Carlingford, and she knew it; but still there is little good in the existence of a Power unless it can be made use of for some worthy end. – Chapter XLII

She is bright and as a woman she isn’t allowed to do anything with her intelligence. Except ‘fix’ society around her. This highligts a problem that a lot of women in Miss Marjoribanks shoes had to deal with at this time.

It could also be that I like Miss Marjoribanks better because she doesn’t come with so margaret_oliphantmuch fan baggage. It might be the reasons I don’t like Emma is because of the fans of the book’s interpretation. Being lesser known Miss Marjoribanks has an easier time of it. Yet, I have no idea why Margaret Oliphant isn’t more known. The writing style and the story is very similar to Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell and I would have thought Mrs. Oliphant was a name I would have heard before. Then again Elizabeth Gaskell have had a resurgent just the last two years, so who knows. Maybe it’s time for Mrs. Oliphant to make her place in the world again. Her writing and stories (the one I have read) shows she will most likely hold her place.

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