It's only February, and Miss Marjoribanks is the second book I've finished from my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list. I've owned it for several years, since I became a serious reader of Victorian fiction. It came highly recommended for the Jane Austen lover, and it was a great choice -- when you have finished all of Austen's six novels, when you have read Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell; if you love Trollope and you want a brilliant comedy of manners, or if you are craving a lovely fat Victorian triple-decker about slightly ridiculous English society people, then this is the book for you.
Published in 1866, Miss Marjoribanks is the story of Lucilla Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks). The story begins when Lucilla is just 17. She is an only child, and she comes home to Carlingford from school after her mother passes away. It is Lucilla's greatest desire to be "a comfort to dear papa." Dr. Marjoribanks is the town's doctor, and he insists that Lucilla complete her education. Two years later, after a grand tour of the continent, she returns to Carlingford with the intent of whipping Carlingford society into shape. Which she does, in grand style. Dr. Marjoribanks has the town's best cook and has a reputation for hosting great men's dinner parties, but Lucilla becomes the Queen Bee of Carlingford society with her Thursday evenings.
Lucilla is a master at coordinating events, bringing people together, and averting scandals. This is a woman that would have made a brilliant diplomat or politician. Her father often regrets that he had a girl and his brother got the boy, Lucilla's cousin Tom, who is madly in love with her but is rather flighty. After Lucilla rejects his offer of marriage, he goes off to India with a broken heart. Meanwhile, Lucilla rearranges everyone's lives in Carlingford but her own.
This book started out a little slowly, but once the plot got going, I could hardly put it down, reading the last 200 pages in just over a day, which is pretty fast for a Victorian. I had some suspicions about how this story was going to wind up, but there was a plot twist that I wasn't expecting at all. At first I thought of Lucilla as a spider, drawing everyone into her benevolent web, but then I decided she was really a puppet master, but in a good way. This book definitely reminded me of Jane Austen's Emma, if Emma were less self-absorbed and a lot nicer. It also reminded me of Cranford, and the sly, ironic wit reminded me of the novels of Anthony Trollope.
This is the second book I've read by Margaret Oliphant, who was a prolific Victorian writer, producing more than 120 works. Last year, I read two of her novellas, published by Persephone books as The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. I liked it, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed Miss Marjoribanks, which is the fifth book in her Carlingford Chronicles. Most of the other books in the series are out of print, but some of them were published as Virago Modern Classics, so I'll have to try and track them down.