Neglected Classics and Unbound Women

Apologies for my absence this week, my friends. I’ve been under the weather and am still suffering the ill-effects of the chronic fatigue that inevitably attaches to whatever ails me. This has had the consequence that I’m also terribly behind in my reviews. Now, I’ve noticed lots of blogging friends signing up for the Women Unbound Challenge, which I thought was tempting, but which I hadn’t intended to join. And then it suddenly struck me that all the reading I’ve done of late (four and a half books) has featured women behaving, or at least trying to behave, in an unorthodox manner. So, belatedly, I’m in. I think that the role of women in novels is notably constrained. Women are confined within a couple of dominant plotlines; they are either a) romantic heroines, pursuing love or b) selfless, devoted mothers or c) wicked and unsympathetic in some way because they are neither a) nor b). It’s quite unusual to find novelists who are trying to do something different with their central female protagonists, and practically nothing upsets the moral universe in which good women are selfless and bad women are out for gain.

So let’s begin with Anthony Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie, a novel that’s been in the news recently because it was advocated by Joanna Trollope as one of Radio 4’s Neglected Classics. Given that it was published in 1865, we’re not going to expect rampant radical feminism here, no. But Trollope did have unusual intentions up his sleeve as he set out ‘to prove that a novel may be produced without any love’. He admitted himself that in fact it didn’t turn out that way in the end, but he still incurred the bewilderment of reviewers at the time by making his heroine plain and unremarkable. Miss Mackenzie, by the time the reader meets her, is an old maid of 36 who has spent her life caring first for her sick father and then her sick brother. Finally she is free and independent, having come into a reasonable sum of money on her brother’s death. And with this little sum, Miss Mackenzie decides to see a bit of the world. She moves to Littlebath (Trollope’s fictional version of Bath) and rents lodgings there, taking with her a niece from her remaining brother’s family, with the intention of paying for her education. And once she is there, the trouble begins, with endless unscrupulous attempts about to be made upon her, in order to secure a stake in her modest fortune.

Money matters, in Trollope’s world, and even an unprepossessing soul like Margaret Mackenzie can clock up a surprising three suitors, all of whom look less attractive than the last, and none of whom seems able to view her separately her from her eight thousand a year. Her family, rather than support and protect her in her newfound independence, are in fact the first of the vultures. Her remaining brother is in trade – which makes for lots of Trollopian fretting about class issues – and his wife is a horrible, grasping sort who needles Margaret mercilessly in order to get a share of her inheritance. Her brother’s business partner, a Mr Rubb, comes courting Margaret with clearly mixed motives. His first act is to secure a hefty loan for the business, which is instantly lost to swathes of debt. Then there are the Balls, a different line of her family, who hold a grudge that they were cheated out of money many years ago and ought by rights to have it now. Margaret’s cousin on this side, John Ball, has nine children, and needs funds. He is manipulated by possibly the most awful character in the novel, the truly ghastly Lady Ball, Margaret’s aunt, who bothers and blackmails her relentlessly and cruelly, to get hold of the money. Then there is a deeply unpleasant clergyman in Littlebath, the Rev. Maguire, whose squint Trollope describes with disquieting horror. He wants to set himself up in his own church and will prove to be one of the most tenacious and underhanded of them all.

But in the middle of this, holding onto her integrity with both hands, is Margaret Mackenzie, who continually balances calm common sense and insight against her desire to be ‘useful’ and give herself and her money over to the worthiest cause. Miss Mackenzie is a wonderful creation; clear-sighted enough to recognize (with sorrow and indignity) when people are out to abuse her, yet quietly passionate about her right to be loved for herself. This is a forward-thinking novel for its time, although its concerns are ancient. There is a profound inquiry into women’s value here, and Margaret wants to be valued at least in part for something other than her inheritance. But since it is the nineteenth century, women are almost inextricably bound up with the money they possess, and Margaret is bitterly aware that while she is relatively rich, no one can view her without money bags popping up before their eyes. And so, about halfway into the novel, Margaret loses all the money she gained, not by any fault of her own, but through a legal loophole.  Whilst she faces poverty and an end to all her worldly aspirations (which were on the tentative side anyway), it does open up a pathway for her to find out which of her unsuitable suitors has the most genuine and lasting desire for her. Because choose one of them she will, before the novel has finished.

So, a quick feminist tot-up here on Trollope’s credit and debit sheet. On the negative side, Trollope still can’t come up with any other plotline for a female protagonist than to have her fall in love and, prior to that ultimate salvation, to have her suffer horribly. Women were such empty vessels in the nineteenth century, their ornamental status so absolute and blinding that any other form of ‘doing’ was entirely foreclosed. Furthermore, the happy ending is only reached after the deus ex machina intervention of yet another relative (and a female one), but finally, finally!, a nice person, who is willing to help Margaret out, albeit from her secure, moneyed and titled position. We have not reached the point in history yet where sisters are doing it for themselves. They need to be backed up by another form of authority. Still in the debit column, Margaret has little or no self-esteem, and is aware that she is valuable to those around her only to the extent that she can give herself (and her assets) away. But, and this is a relatively biggish but, she never sacrifices her pride, either financial or personal, refuses to be any kind of a burden on others, is faintly distrustful of her own romantic notions, and remains at all times true to her own sense of priorities and values. She is clear-sighted, quick-witted, not lost to her emotions and always acting with great integrity. There is much more to Margaret Mackenzie than love interest in a novel; she is, for once, a character in her own right.

I loved this book, and found it an engaging and satisfying read, and whilst I couldn’t rate it as highly as La Cousine Bette or Middlemarch, it is certainly worth your time.

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21 thoughts on “Neglected Classics and Unbound Women

  1. Interesting review and summary of plotlines featuring women. I have to think about that for my own writing. Some of my main characters are passionate about children, but not all. Those who are passionate about children have other interests and ambitions. Usually their triumph depends more on their friendships than their loves, but change is demanded of their love relationships. Still you’ve given me food for thought. Desire and action to protect children has loomed large in my novels not because I think it’s a woman’s only or primary role but because I didn’t have it as a kid.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful look at what sounds like a book well worth reading! I’m very interested in this question — in fact, I just spent five minutes staring at my bookshelves and thinking about how many of the men on my shelves are concerned with love, as compared to the women. So, just taking Huck Finn, Ahab, Don Quixote, Odysseus, David Copperfield, and Jake in the Sun Also Rises. Sure, there’s lots of questing after love — but also justice, money, wanting to get that whale, escape from tyranny, get home and secure your rights… with love mixed up in all that. Women, it seems, are mostly concerned just with securing love. But not always — Lily in To the Lighthouse wants to get her painting right, and Moll Flanders, well, she seems to have wanted more than just love, although I didn’t get the book down to verify that impression. When I create a character, as I am doing now, I’ve mostly been thinking about how I want to write about women who WORK, who have a position in the world they need to defend and justify, even if they also spend quite a lot of time thinking about love. Anyway, thanks again for making me think!

  3. I haven’t officially joined the Unbound challenge, but I do seem to read lots of books that would qualify. I love making challenge lists, and I can usually even read enough books for them, but I’m lazy about updating the lists. I may yet give in and join this one and a couple of others, though. Right now, I’m rereading Mill on the Floss, and it just screams to be part of the challenge. There’s so much in the early chapters about Maggie’s intellectual curiousity being wrong for a girl, etc.

    Anyway, as for the Trollope, I hadn’t heard anything about this book, but I love Trollope. The trouble is that so many of his books are parts of long series of long books, so I tend to avoid reading him because I’m not prepared to get caught up in yet another series. That makes me glad to hear about this one. Margaret sounds like a great character, so I’m adding it to my list.

  4. That sounds like a wonderful book. I have never yet managed to endure an entire Trollope novel, but I believe you’ve inspired me to give it another go … I’ll do that right after I read Ghost Song , which arrived yesterday.

  5. I came to Trollope very late and have consumed a great many of his novels with unexpected enthusiasm in the past couple of years. I think he’s hugely misinterpreted and undervalued and find his psychological take on personalities and relationships greatly ahead of his time (He Knew He Was Right is one of the most powerful analyses of ordinary neuroticism and how it tips over into madness that I’ve ever read – still entirely, frighteningly recognisable despite how much we’ve supposedly ‘evolved’ socially). So I’ll definitely be reading this one, which I hadn’t heard of.

  6. I’ve never read any Trollope but have always meant to – I seem to let him get pushed aside by other less prolific Victorian writers who seem less daunting to tackle for the first time. But your review here has got me interested, would you suggest starting with this novel or do you have a favorite which might be a better “first Trollope”?

  7. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading Trollope, but have a few of his books collected for when the right time comes. This sounds like a good one and your analysis is fantastic. Money colors many things, doesn’t it? And, I think it’s not just women with money who are courted because of it, women do try to catch the eye of the rich gentleman. And Elizabeth Bennet after all doesn’t fall in love with Mr. Darcy until she sees Pemberly. Money aside, it is unfortunate that women’s stories so often have to evolve around love and children, as though we think of nothing else.

  8. There must be another plotline for women. I hate to think that’s all we get. Men get to go off and do all sorts of adventurous things, don’t they. Not many men (in terms of the scope of a novel)are out trying to find the perfect spouse or being caregivers. I’m going to have to think about this one. I’ve not yet read any Trollope, but I do plan on reading some eventually. I think I like the sound of Margaret Mackenzie. Too bad she couldn’t keep her fortune and stay single and still be happy! But this is the Victorian period of course.

  9. Funny. I was just reading about the American folk singer Peggy Seeger. She wrote about the same issue in folk songs and ballads: women are either romantic heroines, devoted wives and mothers or wicked women because neither (or, in folk ballads, quite often ruined women because of poor choices.) Seeger wrote songs about other plotlines: women who boycotted South African goods, women who worked at the mine, women who didn’t enjoy domestic chores, women who went back to school. It makes her songs much harder to categorize and easily reference!

  10. Your description of Margaret at the end of the post reminded me of a Barbara Pym character, which seems like an odd comparison, so I wonder what you think! I’m coming to like Trollope more and more and am looking forward to reading more of his novels.

  11. I haven’t read this yet (Trollope is a lifetime project!) but was similarly intirgued by its description on Radio 4 and will do soon. I’ll be interested to nsee how it compares to Washington Square which has virtually the same plot.

    I enjoy Trollope for his clear-eyed but compassionate treatment of his characters rather than his big ideas or reformist zeal, so am not suprised he doesn’t provide an alternative to the pursuit of love for Miss Mackenzie. But then even George Eliot inspired anger and sorrow for the waste of Dorothea Brooke rather than daring to suggest what she could do besides (or as well as) marry.

  12. Ooh, LL, sorry about the CF rearing its hideous head – I hope you’re feeling better, you poor pet! Gosh, with the exception of our harmless (rather pedestrian?)heroine, all those characters sound VILE. The story is all-too-familiar thematically, right down to its ‘fictionalised Bath’ setting. Honestly, sometimes I fear if you’ve read one 19th century English novel…

  13. I think that’s one of the things I liked about Julie & Julia. The main plotline was not romantic but rather about women achieving something worthwhile such as getting published (and becoming famous). I’ve not read Trollope but I like the sound of this one. Will have to give that blog reading challenge a go.

  14. Just wanted to add that I’m sorry about the CF and I hope you’re taking it easy and that you feel better soon. This can be a crazyish time of year so it’s difficult to take it easy but some good comfort reads might do the trick.

  15. Lilian – oh thank you for the kind wishes! I was very interested to hear your own thoughts about your women characters. I have yet to find an author brave (or foolhardy?) enough to attempt to make a sympathetic portrayal of a bad mother. It’s hard on us as mothers, potential mothers AND particularly as former children, to think that anything could come out of poor mothering, or that it might be assuaged by understanding. I should include your novel in this challenge, shouldn’t I? I’m sure your writing would always be balanced and broad-minded and challenging.

    Lily! – how lovely to have you drop by, and I am delighted to have women novelists like yourself and Lilian thinking about this question. When I was at college, the line ran that men were permitted to turn their ego outwards on the world, whereas women could only turn it inwards, to the domestic domain of family and hearth. Goodness only knows they worked there, but that work was always mundane and unpaid. It’s wonderful to think that women might write about creative, paid, ego-turned-outwards work, that they would fit into and alongside their personal concerns, just as men do. We really need that.

    Teresa – I’ve long intended to read more Eliot but have never progressed beyond Middlemarch (which I loved). I practically never join challenges now, because I love making the lists and then other books fall into my hands, but when I looked back over my reading and joined the dots, I couldn’t resist. I happen to have lots of Trollope novels as they were printed by a firm I used to work for, and there are in fact loads of stand-alones, only they are not so well known. This one I did enjoy.

    David – oh I hope so much that you enjoy Ghost Song. Will you let me know what you think? But warts and all – if I get an idea of what pleases you in fiction, I can make better recommendations. This novel is good, but it IS unmistakeably Trollope. One of the other commenters mentioned that it is structurally similar to Henry James’ Washington Square (which I also loved when I read it, ages ago now). Perhaps he might do better for you?

    Jean – now you remind me that somewhere else I read that He Knew He Was Right was proposed as one of the greatest ever 19th century novels. I possess that but have yet to read it (will do so!). I really appreciate Trollope, too. He is very kind, and refuses to be anything but ethical, and his gender relations are always highly perceptive and realistically wrought. I quite agree that he’s undervalued because he’s less showy than some.

    Verbivore – I found this a quick and an easy read – really, I picked it up because I couldn’t face anything heavy and it was perfect. Having thought it over, I do think it’s a good first Trollope novel. It’s very representative of what he does, and funny and sad and tightly plotted. I’d love to know what you think of him if you do get around to him.

    Stefanie – ooh I’d love to know what you think of him when the Trollope Moment arrives. You are quite right than money made the world go around in the 19th century, particularly, but probably a decent historian of marriage could prove it was the big factor way, way earlier than that! There’s not enough fiction out there that has women moving beyond a very delineated sphere – I should try to compile a list of books that break the mould!

    Danielle – I so know what you mean – when the book begins it looks like MM just might get to live in Littlebath and look after her niece and have an interesting life there, and I would so have cheered to see her do that! From the 1980s onwards, women get to do everything, and all those historical novels are determined to have their female heroines saving the world, it seems, however anachronistically, in order to redress the balance! But it’s tough to find much before then when domesticity isn’t their life. Thank goodness we live in the 21st century where all this can change!

  16. Jenny – I have never heard of Penny Seeger but now I will certainly look her up! Thank you for that. :)

    Dorothy – I think that’s an extremely apt comparison! MM could so easily be transposed to a dull West London parish with a wodge of irritating suitors! Gosh, Trollope and Barbara Pym – it’s a dissertation waiting to be written. I like Trollope a great deal and want to read more by him. As you know, I am very underread in the 19th century generally and have a lot to catch up on!

    Sarah – it’s not the fault of the 19th century authors that their world was just like that, I do agree. Seeing beyond the confines of social horizons is incredibly hard to do, so even the loosening of the bonds that Trollope manages to achieve here, by not having his heroine beautiful and sentimental, means a great deal. And you remind me that I should reread Washington Square, which I read years and years ago and loved.

    Doctordi – It is quite true that all the characters are exactly that – vile – apart from MM herself, and the kind, lovely relative who comes to her rescue in the end. I was relieved when she turned up! And thank you for your kind wishes – much appreciated. :)

    Pete – now how funny you should say that, as I’ve had Julie and Julia sitting by my bedside for a couple of nights as I weigh up whether to read it or not. You are quite right to suggest comfort novels as I have been wallowing in them, and am just trying to figure out whether J & J fits into the comfort category! And thank you for your sympathy. I am doing my best to take things very easily!

  17. Litlove, you’ve a wonderful, lucid way of expounding a narrative.

    My Dad loves Trollope – I think perhaps I should pay him more attention. I’ve only read ‘The Warden’ and found it a little sedate, but I probably tried to read it in a hurry.

  18. Dear Litlove, I am reading this book – thank you so much for recommending it!

    Since September I’ve been working to a rhythm that is overwhelming and really not sustainable and by now has left me weary, drained and depressed, a feeling only exacerbated by seeing the same reflected in the faces of all my colleagues (I’m sure you’re familiar with the look).

    This lovely novel is clever, timelessly perceptive and beautifully written in a peerlessly sustained tone of humorous irony. It is merciless but never less than humane. It makes me giggle – giggles that come from the heart because sadness and mirth are entirely intertwined. I needed to giggle – not enough laughter lately.

    This is the kind of book that makes me thankful anew for blessing that reading has been in my life. Fabulous. Really.

  19. Pingback: Point of view and being female | Tailfeather

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