Miss Marjoribanks- another Mrs Oliphant novel

The evening is now dark. There is no TV. I have been knitting this afternoon. What shall I do? Ah, read a book!

In Victorian times, this was one of the chief recreations of those who had enough money and education to enjoy it, as well as singing, and playing the piano. Tea was often taken in the evening- no one had told them about caffeine keeping them awake, and it was a social time. Books, including novels and poetry were read aloud to the family. Many were in fact serialised and families waited anxiously for the next episode. By the time I was a teenager, TV was the ubiquitous background and we all watched favourite programs as eagerly as the Victorians read the new episode of Pickwick Papers. I remember a sci-fi serial called The Quatermass Experiment that gave me nightmares- but I loved it with the same fascination as  the next generation with Dr. Who.

Miss Marjoribanks (say it as “Marchbanks”) was an early soap opera and forerunner of chick lit! I do not despise it for that, though Mrs Oliphant seems not to have entered the ranks of Enduring Literature That Gets Taught. Apart from her need to earn money to support her children and assorted family members, which I remarked on in an earlier post, she can tell a page turner of a story, with enough predictability that you chuckle, and surprising twists and insights too.

Like the previous work of hers that I read recently, The Curate in Charge, the strongest character is the namesake of the book, Miss Marjoribanks. Even when she manages a fairly traditional ending ( which the Curate did not) her female character so clearly has far too much ability and force to accept the quiet, passive and submissive role she was intended for. If only Mrs Oliphant could have seen that her heroine, if born a hundred and some years later would not aspire to rule a small town’s society or marry and influence a powerful man, but would be free to be a powerful woman in society, with recognised roles and work. If she had only been able to foresee Margaret Thatcher,The Iron Lady!

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