A woman with a mission

Dear Margaret,

In your novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), your protagonist seems to have set herself the difficult task of trying to overcome the confines of Victorian views on women. However, at the same time, she does so by remaining dutifully bound to these very narrow confines. Much like your protagonist, you seem to write from within the social prejudices of your time, only to sharply criticise those prejudices, exploring them to their very limit, and using wit to dress up the threat your criticism might offer to the worldview of an ill-advised Victorian reader.

We first meet Lucilla, the eponymous Miss Marjoribanks of your novel, at the age of 15. An only child, she has just come home from school after her long-ailing mother passed away. Lucilla had imagined for herself a heroic role as a dutiful daughter who renounces everything and remains at home to be a comfort to her widowed father, who works as the town’s doctor. However, much to her dislike, Dr. Marjoribanks insists that Lucilla must complete her education, and promptly sends her back to school. After three years of study and one grand tour of the European continent, Miss Marjoribanks returns to the provincial English town of Carlingford: she is more determined than ever to pursue the mission she had set for herself years before.

The story is pervaded by irony: by wholeheartedly accepting the role Victorian society had assigned to her as a young woman – that of a dutiful daughter, Lucilla manages to transcend this role and to become a real force in the town’s social and political lives; by insisting that she is solely confined to the domestic realm, Lucilla expands her sphere of influence to the public realm; by keeping to the rules, she manages to bend those rules to her own benefit.

Your descriptions of Lucilla’s dealings with her household mirror those of a highly skilled sovereign who manages to take over the reins of his land; or those of a brilliant diplomat, who expands his spheres of influence by cleverly coordinating events and averting conflicts. We watch as Lucilla not only takes hold of her home, but also begins to take control of Carlingford’s social life.

We sense from the beginning that Miss Marjoribanks’ talents surpass the confines of Victorian middle-class life. She is lively, bright, and determined to create a room for herself with the little she is allowed to get as a woman. She puts off marriage for ten years, in order to rise to power in Carlingford. Unlike the male characters in this novel, who are unruled, futile, naive and governed by passions, Lucilla is practical, organised and rational: she is an ambitious woman with a mission.

Throughout the novel, Lucilla claims that she is determined to devote herself to her father for the next ten years. She might be telling us the truth, or she might be using her father as an excuse for a more ambitious goal of seizing control over Carlingford. We don’t really know what her real mission is, and it doesn’t matter. By accepting her narrow role as dutiful daughter, Lucilla takes on the much larger role of leading figure in town: she gains popularity, influence, and power far beyond the confines of her drawing room, without ever having to leave her domestic habitat.

She sets out her mission to ‘be a comfort to her papa’; she schemes to improve the social life of her provincial town; then, turns her ‘Thursday evenings’ into ‘an institution in Carlingford’; finally, she establishes herself as the town’s beating heart – all the while dressing up her personal mission as sacrifice, as the selfless undertaking of her ‘public duty’ to society. Gradually, she will come to manage all the major events in town: from local dramas and romance to local politics and beyond.

I found particularly funny the many ways men often misunderstand Lucilla’s intentions, by reducing them to the narrow way they imagine a woman thinks and feels. They seem unable to accept that Lucilla can be anything other than a passive romantic ideal; they don’t realize that she cannot care less about them, and that she has her own goals to pursue. In fact, the men in the novel are frequently talking nonsense and falling prey to their own foolishness. They are weak, romantic, stupid, naïve. The women, on the other hand – and particularly Lucilla – are the driving forces of everything that really matters in the story. “Lucilla could not but cast a despairing glance round her, as if appealing to heaven and earth. What was to be done with a man who had so little understanding of her, and of himself, and of the eternal fitness of things?”

Your novel draws a sharp critique against the constraints placed upon talented women by the mores of 19th-century society. Lucilla and her own father are well aware that, had she been a man, she would have had far more opportunities to put her talents into action. She would have been a medical doctor, or would have gone into Parliament. As it is, she is forced to shift and distort her abilities, so as to make them fit the narrow pattern of accepted Victorian femininity. And she does that to the point of deformity, so that the effect is an odd and comic one: while the most trivial domestic events assume the character of central ones, the true political events are rendered as a triviality. We know Lucilla’s drawing room is not meant to be taken seriously, but we end up thinking that the so-called ‘male world’ is even more trivial than her domestic kingdom.

The private and public realms mirror each other perfectly in this novel. And yours is an interesting, double-sided mirror: depending on the way a Victorian reader looks at it, he could have his middle-class vanities reinforced and satisfied, seeing Lucilla as the perfect image of 19th-century female virtue; or, with a more penetrating look, he could see her as a detailed reflection of his own petty ideas, his prejudices and shortcomings.

Your sense of humour is so relentlessly dry, that this imaginary Victorian reader might never even notice it; and in case he did, he would feel outraged. If Lucilla seems to be such a pathetically comic character – a woman with no other outlet for her talents than to employ them in trivial pursuits and be mindlessly praised for it -, we cannot help but feel that the limiting world that forced her into this situation is no less pathetic.

In this novel, you – much like your character Lucilla – managed to bend the norms by never overtly subverting them. And this was brilliant, my dear.

Yours truly,


Franz Xaver Winterhalter, “Carmen, Duchesse de Montmorency”, 1860

“At first, I always make it a point to give in to the prejudices of society. That is how I have always been so successful. I never went in the face of anybody’s prejudices. Afterwards, you know, when one is known ….”
― Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

“As she stepped into the steamboat at Dover which was to convey her to scenes so new, Lucilla felt more and more that she who held the reorganisation of society in Carlingford in her hands was a woman with a mission.”
― Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks

About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2006, 581 p. Goodreads
  • Virago Modern Classics, 1988, 512 p. Goodreads
  • The book was first published in serialised form in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine from February 1865 to May 1866.
  • Miss Marjoribanks is the fifth novel in “The Chronicles of Carlingford” series.
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • This book was read for Victober.

4 thoughts on “A woman with a mission

  1. I do find your letters so clever! This is my favorite Oliphant, not that I’ve read more than nine or ten-some as free e-bookse. I love the character Lucilla. All of Oliphant’s novels are very different and I do think she is neglected.


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