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.