‘Women have always written about men,’ Jane Miller remarks in Women Writing about Men (1986),

but they have needed to be extremely circumspect about doing so. To read as a woman is to confront that circumspection as a mode of being and a kind of language … Of course, I too want to hear what women writers have been telling us about women. I am almost certain, though, that it will be easier to know what this is if we first attend to what they have distinguished as male.

Miller discusses, inevitably, Jane Austen, the Brontës and George Eliot. But none of these writers refers to men as ‘that inferior branch of the human family’ or simply as ‘They’, or ‘Them’. The writer who does do that is Margaret Oliphant, whom Miller doesn’t mention, and whose novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866) is surely the most interesting and entertaining example of a woman writing about men in the 19th century.

The novel tells the story of Miss Marjoribanks, and of her return, after finishing her schooling, to live with her widowed father in Carlingford, where already

preparations and presentiments had taken vague possession of the mind of the town, as has always been observed to be the case before a great revolution, or when a man destined to put his mark on his generation, as the newspapers say, is about to appear. To be sure, it was not a man this time, but Miss Marjoribanks; but the atmosphere thrilled and trembled to the advent of the new luminary all the same.

The thrilling and trembling is quite in order. Miss Marjoribanks, Lucilla to her intimates, fully intends to revolutionise Carlingford, and quickly does so, establishing regular Thursday evenings and an unbreakable social ascendancy. ‘There are people,’ Oliphant writes,

who talk of themselves, and think of themselves, as it were, under protest, and with depreciation, not actually able to convince themselves that anybody cares; but Lucilla, for her part, had the calmest and most profound conviction that, when she discussed her own doings and plans and clevernesses, she was bringing forward the subject most interesting to her audience as well as to herself. Such a conviction is never without its fruits.

One of these fruits is an instrumental view of men, considered ‘simple material for Miss Marjoribanks’s genius’. Simple, because ‘everybody knows that it requires very little to satisfy the gentlemen, if a woman will only give her mind to it.’ Lucilla recognises that wives are tied to their husbands – ‘You poor dear people have to go where they like, and see the people they want you to see,’ – so she lays on dinners perfected for male palates in order to secure their attendance at her Thursdays, after which they are put to honest work. Mr Cavendish is highly prized as a flirt, for ‘to have a man who can flirt is next thing to indispensable to a leader of society; that is to say, if he is under efficient discipline, and capable of carrying out a grand conception.’ Lesser men are ‘perfectly available for the background’. When on one occasion Mr Cavendish’s flirtations are discovered to be not properly disciplined, he

made off on the instant, and hid himself like a criminal in the dark depths of a group of men who were talking together near the door. These were men who were hopeless, and good for nothing but to talk to each other, and whom Miss Marjoribanks tolerated in her drawing-room partly because their wives, with an excusable weakness, insisted on bringing them, and partly because they made a foil to the brighter part of the company, and served as a butt when anybody wanted to be witty.

Carlingford, under Lucilla’s reign, is a matriarchy – and a far more believable one than Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. It is a spot of light in a dark continent of male misapprehension: ‘In delicate matters of social politics, one never expects to be understood by them.’ When her elderly confidant Mrs Chiley asks what she should wear to the first of the Thursday evenings, Lucilla replies, ‘It doesn’t matter in the least what you wear; there are only to be gentlemen, you know, and one never dresses for gentlemen.’

‘Well, my dear,’ said Mrs Chiley, ‘I am long past that sort of thing – but the men think, you know, that it is always for them we dress.’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Marjoribanks, ‘their vanity is something dreadful – but it is one of my principles never to dress unless there are ladies.’

Where, in all this, is Oliphant’s circumspection? Miller is interested in the idea of androgyny or ‘bilingualism’: ‘All women who read and write … have learned to do these things as if they were men.’ To write ‘purely’ as a woman was, and perhaps still is, to abandon claims to greatness and to risk embarrassment. Summarising the view of F.R. Leavis, Miller writes: ‘When George Eliot is good she is as good as a man and occasionally better for being an exceptional man, i.e. a woman. When she is bad [i.e. when inventing a male character like Daniel Deronda] it is because she is a woman.’ ‘Bilingualism can be an asset,’ she concludes, ‘but its acquisition involves splits and instabilities, impersonation, a stepping out of yourself.’ If Oliphant, who never wrote under an assumed male name, and later published as ‘Mrs Oliphant’ (Oliphant being her mother’s maiden name, as well as the name of the maternal cousin she married), has fluency in another language, it is irony. And it is the pervasive irony with which Miss Marjoribanks’s exploits are treated that constitutes her creator’s circumspection. One of the great pleasures of the novel is the gap we are made to feel between the footling business of Carlingford sociability and the towering heights of Lucilla’s personality, between subject and vocabulary. Lucilla is described as possessing ‘by nature some of the finest qualities of the ruler’; Carlingford is her ‘kingdom’. Nancy, the cook, is taken for ‘her prime minister’. At various points Lucilla is likened to a general, a warrior and Joan of Arc. Waiting to spring a surprise, ‘Miss Marjoribanks was looking to the joints of her harness, and feeling the edge of her weapons.’ On almost every page, her ‘genius’ is proclaimed, as she faces down ‘crisis’ after ‘crisis’ (having mainly to do with the the presence of eligible bachelors with baggage). We are meant to be amused by Lucilla’s skill at aligning her own interests with the public good, her insistence that she exists only to ‘comfort her dear papa’ (who keeps out of the way), her frequent references to her instruction in political economy (a self-serving doctrine) and her faith in the workings of Providence (‘I have always been guided for the best, hitherto,’ she says, ‘with an innocent and unintentional profanity’). This is a small world, with skewed priorities and proportions, and Lucilla’s attitude to men can be seen in this light, as a refraction of her blissful self-absorption. It is one more thing to be laughed at. And of course, on one level, in one language, this is right.

And yet, our sympathies are always with Lucilla. We believe in her. She is a genius. In nothing important is she a fraud. She is no Emma Woodhouse (though she is clearly a genealogical descendant): enlightenment never comes, because it is never needed. Q.D. Leavis, who saw Oliphant as the bridge between Austen and Eliot, regarded Lucilla as ‘a triumphant intermediary between their Emma and Dorothea, and, incidentally, more entertaining, more impressive and more likeable than either’. She reminds me of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove. (James criticised Oliphant for her ‘reckless rustle over depths and difficulties’, which was very like a man to think.)

When John Blackwood, who was publishing Miss Marjoribanks in serial in his magazine, taxed Oliphant with making Lucilla too ‘hard’, she responded: ‘I have a weakness for Lucilla, and to bring a sudden change upon her character and break her down into tenderness would be like one of Dickens’s maudlin repentances, when he makes Mr Dombey trinquer with Captain Cuttle. Miss M. must be one and indivisible, and I am pretty sure that my plan is right.’ The plan was right, and Oliphant gives the reader the means to see that the ironic distance is not really so great: repeatedly, Lucilla’s friends and family assume she is ‘joking, or acting, or doing something quite different from the severe sincerity which was her leading principle’, and thus fail to anticipate her next, inevitably correct, move. The novel pushes us to share her worldview in other ways too. Some of the most disparaging remarks about men are made by the omniscient narrator, and almost every female character has a bad word to add. ‘It is frightfully hard for a woman to stand by and see a set of men making a mess of things, and not to dare to say a word till all is spoiled,’ Mrs Woodburn despairs. ‘Besides, he was only a man,’ little Rose Lake thinks of her father. ‘Everybody knows men are great fools where women are concerned – but I never knew what idiots they were till now,’ Mrs Chiley confides.

There is good reason, then, to think that Mrs Oliphant was showing her hand. The impression is confirmed by her biography. Born in Scotland and raised there and in Liverpool, she wrote her first novels ‘sat at the corner of the family table with my writing book, with everything going on as if I had been making a shirt’. By her early forties, she had lost her mother and three infant children, her husband had died of tuberculosis (leaving her £1000 in debt), her eldest daughter had died aged ten, and she had two young sons, two wastrel brothers, a nephew and two nieces to support. She wrote 98 novels as well as short stories and more than 25 works of non-fiction (some of them translations); she was also a regular reviewer for Blackwood’s. It was a ‘fighting life’, in Penelope Fitzgerald’s words; Oliphant called it ‘an immoral, or at least an un-moral, mode of life, dashing forward in the face of all obstacles and taking up all burdens with a kind of levity, as if my strength and resource could never fail’. Her autobiography, written in fragments over many decades, often makes for painful reading (her nephew and both her sons, neither of whom took permanently to employment, also died during her lifetime – she had laboured to put all three through Eton). She notes moments when she was subject to condescension. There was a vicar who ‘complimented me by saying he did not like literary ladies – a sort of thing people are rather disposed to say to me’, and a meeting with the parliamentarian Charles Dilke, ‘who on being introduced to me, began at once to speak of his books and of his publishers, as if he and not I were the literary person’. She remembers taking a trip abroad with a group of other young mothers, ‘all of us about the same age, all with the sense of holiday, a little outburst of freedom, no man interfering, keeping us to rule or formality’.

Reading J.W. Cross’s biography of his wife George Eliot in 1885, she asks herself,

if I am a little envious of her? I always avoid considering formally what my own mind is worth … I have written because it gave me pleasure, because it came natural to me, because it was like talking or breathing, besides the big fact that it was necessary for me to work for my children … Should I have done better if I had been kept, like her, in a mental greenhouse and taken care of?

More than twenty years previously, in 1864, the year her daughter died and (incredibly) the year she began Miss Marjoribanks, Oliphant had taken up Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, and found that she

could not help comparing myself with the picture more or less as I read. I don’t suppose my powers are equal to hers … but yet I have had far more experience, and, I think, a fuller conception of life. I have learned to take perhaps more a man’s view of mortal affairs, – to feel that the love between men and women, the marrying and giving in marriage, occupy in fact so small a portion of existence or thought.

Lucilla, despite being of marrying age, and constantly in danger of proposals, doesn’t concern herself overmuch with marriage. If it catches up with her, as these things do, it happens without her say-so. It is hard to imagine a heroine more unlike one of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘plain, poor, high-minded young women’ (in Elizabeth Hardwick’s phrase), overlooked and underappreciated. The men in this novel are not longed for, or even fallen for (or not by Lucilla). They are fragile creatures, whose self-perceived strength, Oliphant wants us to notice, depends on gender as a sort of performance, or delusion. Mr Cavendish, who has a secret at risk of exposure, is wildly panicked, but then

in sight of his sister’s agitation felt himself perfectly composed and serene and manful … ‘It is I that have to do it, Nelly,’ said Mr Cavendish, more and more tranquil and superior. ‘You must let me do it my way’ … This was how things ought to be … But somehow when he had got back to his own house again … the courage began to ooze out of [his] finger-points.

Women are complicit in the perpetuation of this delusion one way or another, either by accepting it weakly and foolishly (like the widow Mrs Mortimer, who is trampled by the misogynist Mr Beverley), or tacitly (like Mr Cavendish’s sister, boiling with frustration), or ravenously (like Barbara Lake, a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of ‘passion and ambition and jealousy and wounded amour propre’), or with full awareness, like Lucilla, who sees in it her opportunity. Unlike the men, she is never taken in. Rejected by two suitors, ‘she thought of it with a certain mild pity and charitable contempt. Both these … men had had the chance of having her.’ One of them returns after a decade away, stout and red in the face, giving Oliphant the opportunity to skewer another form of male self-deceit: ‘The fact is that men do become old fogies even when they have no children to look after, and lose their figure and their elasticity just as soon.’

The suggestion isn’t that Lucilla would be better off on her own. At two moments, Oliphant has women characters look enviously at her. Mrs Mortimer, ‘like most other women’, is pleased by the idea ‘that here and there, as in Miss Marjoribanks’s case, there existed one who was utterly indifferent to the gentlemen’. Mrs Woodburn thinks that ‘it would be very foolish of Miss Marjoribanks to marry, and forfeit all her advantages … she looked back a little wistfully at Lucilla going home all comfortable and independent and light-hearted, with no cares, nor anybody to go on at her, in her sealskin coat.’ They both misjudge her. Lucilla is aware of her advantages, ‘but notwithstanding, she had come to an age when most people have husbands, and when an independent position in the world becomes necessary to self-respect. To be sure, Lucilla was independent; but then – there is a difference, as everybody knows.’ Oliphant, like Austen, was a realist. Marriage was no guarantee of happiness. She could manage without a man – could fairly disdain them – but she would not pretend that they were not always the surest means to an end. Five minutes after his proposal has been accepted, we are told, Lucilla’s future husband’s ‘moment of supremacy was over’.

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