Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks: A Victorian Emma

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks: A Victorian Emma

Article excerpt

FIFTY YEARS AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF Emma (1816), Margaret Oliphant published Miss Marjoribanks (1866), whose heroine, as critics have noted, is a descendant of Emma Woodhouse. In 1969, Q. D. Leavis observed that Lucilla Marjoribanks is a "triumphant intermediary" between Jane Austen's Emma and George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke (3). Similarly, Vineta and Robert A. Colby describe Lucilla Marjoribanks as the "spiritual grand-daughter" of Emma Woodhouse (65). The extent to which Oliphant admired Austen's Emma is clear when, in The Literary History of England, Oliphant writes that Emma is the most "perfect" of Austen's novels (231). But what do scholars mean when they say that Oliphant's heroine is like Austen's? Most seem to mean that these characters are managers, organizers and, especially, matchmakers. And while the two heroines certainly are all of these things, I would suggest that Emma and Lucilla are objects of matchmaking just as much as they are matchmakers. Friends and neighbors of Emma and Lucilla spend almost as much time contemplating whom these women should marry as Emma and Lucilla spend engineering certain pairings. The tremendous interest surrounding the love lives of Emma Woodhouse and Lucilla Marjoribanks ultimately allows both Austen and Oliphant to stress the communal nature of matchmaking.

In making predictions about whom Emma and Lucilla will marry, their neighbors surprisingly and amusingly overlook the arguably obvious candidates Mr. Knightley and Tom Marjoribanks, respectively Thus, while characters are shocked at the news that Emma will marry Mr. Knightley, a kind of "brother" to her, and Lucilla will wed her cousin Tom, many readers foresee such outcomes, a disjunction that not only generates comedy but serves to make the heroines' choice of partners seem both unexpected and obvious at the same time. And though Austen and Oliphant are often labeled as conservative because of their frequent use of the conventional ending of marriage, the "extraordinary" marriages of Emma and Lucilla undercut the notion of a traditional marriage for these heroines.

Readers of Emma will enjoy Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks, a novel readily available in paperback. The plot of Oliphant's humorous novel traces the eponymous heroine's rise to power in the imaginary country town of Carlingford. Oliphant treats Lucilla in the mock-epic style, likening her to a "king" (26) and a "sovereign" (31). By characterizing her aim as being a "comfort to [-her] dear papa" rather than gaining influence, Lucilla silences her critics and quickly seizes control not only of her father's household but of the social world of Carlingford (15). Lucilla rules triumphantly for a decade with only minor interruptions, including a series of aborted proposals of marriage from eligible bachelors and the threat that the true identity of a social imposter will be revealed. While the first two volumes of the novel are concerned with Lucilla's organization of society, by the third volume she desires a greater scope for her powers and so turns to politics, campaigning for the future M.P. of Carlingford. When Lucilla's father dies, leaving her relatively poor, she accepts a marriage proposal from her cousin Tom. The couple moves to a country house, providing Lucilla with an even larger sphere of influence.

Because Emma is "first in consequence" (7) in the village of Highbury and Lucilla is "queen" (81) of Carlingford, it is natural that residents of these respective communities are greatly interested in whom their leader will marry, a decision likely to affect the entire community Mr. Knightley, for example, speaks for all of Highbury when he says, "'I have a very sincere interest in Emma'" and "'I wonder what will become of her!'" (40). Emma and Lucilla are leisured and motherless young ladies with fathers who, more or less, give them free rein, and thus they have enormous influence in their circumscribed environments. While Emma largely confines her activities to matchmaking, Lucilla successfully strives to make a "harmonious whole" out of the "scraps and fragments" (21) of society through her "Thursday evenings" (33), after-dinner parties meant to transform and unite Carlingford. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.