In writing Miss Mackenzie (1865), Trollope was attempting to “prove that a novel may be produced without any love,” but later admitted in his autobiography that the attempt “breaks down before the conclusion”. Margaret Mackenzie is an unlikely heroine, being both plain and middle-aged. I shall overlook the fact that at 34 she is described as being clearly past her best. After many years lodging with an older brother and nursing him through his illness, Miss Mackenzie finds herself the beneficiary of a £12,000 legacy. This sum produces a not inconsiderable income of £800 per annum, and she is suddenly a valuable commodity, rather than an encumbrance. Her other, impecunious, brother expects her to move in with him and his large family, seeing himself as more deserving of the fortune. Margaret instead moves herself to Littlebath, a fictional watering-place in the West Country, and establishes a life of her own.
From being an unremarkable spinster, Margaret soon receives the attentions of three importunate suitors, all of whom are desperate to get their hands on her money – some more transparently than others. In addition, the local Evangelical community of Littlebath, headed by the unyielding Reverend Stumfold and his rebarbative wife, “whose chief pleasure in life was browbeating her husband’s women parishioners,” are keen to tell Margaret how to live her life. Trollope’s comic portrait of provincial society is particularly successful, and it includes an interesting early portrayal of elective spinsterhood in Miss Sally Todd, who is said to have been modeled on the redoubtable Frances Power Cobbe.
Trollope is asking whether a woman has the right to exist in her own right, or should she she simply subjugate herself to the needs of others. Miss Mackenzie struggles with this question, while those around her seek to control her money. She begins to hate her fortune and all the trouble it has caused. Her suitors all believe in their “right” to her wealth and are appalled by the idea of a woman being independently wealthy. Unusually for Trollope, there are many twists and turns in the plot, and Margaret’s fate is never obvious. However, the authorial voice makes it clear what is happening, thus allowing the reader to focus on the characterisation. Trollope does finally allow her to fall in love, although she does so unsentimentally. The working title for the novel was A Modern Griselda and she is referred to as Griselda several times, Trollope thus comparing her with the long-suffering wife in Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. Although she engages the reader’s sympathies, she is no saccharine Dickens’ heroine. Her attitude to those she perceives as being beneath her in the social scale is unreconstructed, and this flaw makes her appear more plausible. Less convincing is the grasping Jerimiah Maguire, whose pronounced squint seems a superfluous indicator of his underlying malevolence.
It’s hard to know Trollope’s reasons for choosing the names Ball, Rubb, and Handcock for three of the suitors. In conjunction with the Chaucerian allusion, the novel consequently has a rather bawdy air. Perhaps this is why Michael Sadleir referred to it as “amusing but faintly sordid”. Readers, both contemporary and more recent, have objected to the ordinariness of heroine and some of the supporting characters, but herein lies the real charm of the story. Although the conclusion is, of course, normative (I shan’t divulge it), Trollope gives centre stage to an ordinary woman who wouldn’t have merited even a small role in the work of other writers – she is no Lady Audley or Lydia Gwilt. In so doing, he offers an intriguing commentary on the position of women in the mid-Victorian period.
Out now: The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell's Fiction, a beautifully written study of this Victorian author's novels.