Finally, I finished Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, and found it to be a delightful, gentle comic novel. Q. D. Leavis apparently called Miss Marjoribanks the missing link between Austen’s Emma and Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, but for my part, I felt she had a lot more plausibility as an ancestor to E. F. Benson’s Lucia, that queen of tea party society in the early quarter of the twentieth century. Miss Marjoribanks’ first name is Lucilla, and I kept getting them mixed up in my head. In both cases the desire to laud it over a small and otherwise docile village community is the source of much social comedy, as the reader is invited to both delight in, and laugh at, the mismatch between grandiose ideas and the banal situation in which they must unfold.
Lucilla Marjoribanks is described as a big girl, a statuesque heroine, and a tough and pragmatic one, clearly distinguished from the willowy, emotional and sentimental sisters who abound in other Victorian novels. Lucilla sets to work on the unprepossessing material that is the small town of Carlingford, and provides its magnetic social center. From this vantage point, she exerts her matchmaking abilities, mostly in order to marry off men who might possibly be her suitors, but towards whom she certainly has none of the usual romantic attachments. Lucilla is a business woman in matters of the heart, as she is in ruling her small domain, her courses on ‘political economy’ at school holding an exaggerated influence over her reasoning. Over the course of the novel, Lucilla’s patience and her intelligence will be tried many a time, and as the story advances so the challenges she meets become ever more demanding. But Lucilla rises to meet them all, and do what must be done, and for this she is called, many, many times in the narrative, a ‘genius’.
Now Lucilla is definitely the kind of heroine who could get on a reader’s nerves for her often smug self-possession, her dictatorial and autonomous temperament and for the lack of those finer feelings that mostly undermine characters from within – gentleness, empathy, romantic attachment, self doubt. She’s not exactly rich in inner life and imagination, or indeed in self-awareness. But she suffers attacks on her amour propre with admirable grace, and swallows the awkward consequences of those who refuse to be grateful for the good she does them, and even goes through some serious trials without losing her head, and it’s enough for us to keep sympathy with her. I was surprised, then, to read in the introduction that Miss Marjoribanks is losing its status as Oliphant’s finest comic novel and becoming her ‘problem’ one, under the scrutiny of modern critics. The problem, it seems is that we don’t really know how to judge Lucilla – the narrative is ambiguous as to whether we should pity her or admire her, whether she represents a real paradigm shift in the female heroine, or whether she is just a victim of her circumstances who is too stupid to have realized it. Lucilla’s problem is a basic Victorian one – what does a smart and powerful woman do in a restricted society. Her answer to this difficulty is tricky to plunder for a moral message. Is her ability to provide a good tea party really something we should admire in a heroine? Does Lucilla recognize her own ludicrousness at times? Can we still praise a heroine for her achievements when they are so circumscribed and trivial?
Well, my response to these various problems comes with an examination of that term ‘genius’ that gets bandied about so much in the narrative and which, given the generally ironic tone, is both applicable to our heroine and a means to poke some fun at her pretensions. In its earliest Latinate usage, ‘genius’ is associated with the collective identity of the tribe, kin or family and more particularly with tribal or family spirits – hence, apparently, derivative words such as genial and generous, with their sociable implications. The word also had a link with ‘genie’, the idea of a power for good or ill, depending on how it was handled, a word which modern readers may know from its manifestation as a daemon or daimon in the Philip Pullman novels, a personal, guiding spirit which, when ‘demonised’ by Christianity became diabolical. Put these notions all together and you have the geni locus, or the ‘spirit of place’, conceived as guarding and guiding spirits, springing from a sense of place, space or race, something original and available to all, a kind of common resource (and all gen- words have this sense of beginning, as in genesis). Right up until the late eighteenth century, ‘genius’ was the word for the innate characteristics of a person, rather than the exceptional ones. ‘Every man has his genius,’ said Dr Johnson.
In the Romantic period, however, all this changed, and the word became charged with personal superiority and excellence and linked in particular to creativity. What essentially happened was that ‘genius’ shifted from being a resource available to all, personified in earlier times as the arrival of the muse, to something innate and personal, something internal to the individual. The Romantic artist continued to mix up the internal and external, however, using the outside world in the form of the power of nature or romantic feelings for a woman, to stimulate internal sensibilities to an excessive degree. The term genius was, however, strongly linked to men, and men alone. In 1863, about the exact time that Oliphant was writing Miss Marjoribanks, the Goncourt brothers in France proclaimed ‘there are no women of genius; the women of genius are men’ (come closer, Goncourt brothers, and say that again).
So for Oliphant to use ‘genius’ so excessively in relation to her female character was a tad daring. And she does it in a way that isn’t about to cause outrage, by making that usage ironic and a bit playful. Lucilla, as a character, isn’t about to upset anyone’s notions of how a woman should behave – far from it, in fact. And yet, and yet…. Lucilla does behave in exceptional ways, in that anyone could have drawn disparate Carlingford society together and given it a focal point and a community life – but only Lucilla actually does. What she provides, as well, could be seen very much as the old-fashioned spirit of place that genius used to represent – the guiding spirit that oversees all social resources, and keeps people genial to one another and possibly even generous. To do this, Lucilla has to have a very special relationship to that dynamic between internal and external. It’s her political awareness that keeps the social interactions ticking over nicely; she is extremely attentive and aware, plugged in to what people like and find acceptable, deeply embedded in conventionality, if you like, but able to manipulate that to bring pleasure, entertainment and culture to all the people who surround her, independent of their own class or social standing. This surely, is a kind of genius indeed.
But there is even more to it than that. What stands out about Lucilla is her energy and vitality. The social creativity she produces comes at no personal cost, which is truly and absolutely extraordinary. The mean-spirited might say that this is the benefit of superficiality, and that Lucilla’s ability to keep her feelings unengaged is the key to her cool head and her stamina. But I think there’s another way to see it. There’s a moment in the story when Lucilla is heading off into battle, as usual, and the narrative tells us that she ‘had in her mind the four distinct aims of pleasing Rose, of dazzling Barbara, of imposing upon Mr Cavendish, and finally, of being, as always, in harmony with herself.’ If Lucilla manages her difficult social interventions beautifully, it’s because she keeps herself congruent at all times. Her inside and her outside match, and she has nothing to hide. The introduction to the novel talks of ‘the mirror world in which social identity has to be framed and controlled’, and whilst this is pronounced as if such a world may have disappeared, it still operates today. What we see when we look in the mirror may sometimes seem dislocated from our genuine internal sense of self, but it is all that other people ever see, and to that image, many characteristics are attributed, many judgements are made. Social power is gained or lost depending on how we sustain the gaze of other people, whether we manage not to let our private feelings show when they are out of harmony with how we are supposed to be feeling. Now Lucilla manages this splendidly, partly because she is a perfect woman of her times, in line with social conventions and lacking awkward sensibilities. She also has, extremely unusual for her age and gender, a strong trust in herself and her capabilities. But more than all these, she takes time out to consult her own inner world, and to listen to what it is she wants. This self-knowledge helps her to hold out, as she has to on many occasions, against the strong protests from those around her, who wish to organize her fate differently. Always diplomatic, Lucilla nevertheless retains her integrity, and by knowing her own heart and mind, and accepting them, she is unified and strong. Now this is surely the manifestation of Lucilla’s personal, creative genius, a unique ability to create with social materials, if not with artistic ones.
I was afraid this would turn into a monster post, and I apologise for its length, only it’s hard to put a different case forward without taking some time over it. But for anyone who is still with me, I felt, after reading the introduction, somewhat defensive towards the delightful, stubborn, self-satisfied Lucilla. She keeps herself happy, despite the vagaries of fate, and this is a pretty fine achievement for any Victorian heroine, and indeed for any woman of any age, taught as we are from birth to be our own harsh critics and to consider that we have never done enough. To ask Lucilla to be completely different from herself, tortured by love or struggling against great social injustice, is to overlook both the lesson in good sense and self-preservation, as well as the gentle comedy that she provides.