Archive for January 30, 2012

Women have plenty of lovers when they have plenty of money

January 30, 2012 50 comments

Miss Mackenzieby Anthony Trollope. 1865. An eponymous French translation has been available since 2010. (!!)

Anthony Trollope. I try to say it aloud. A tricky th too soon followed by a treacherous Tr and my French tongue is in a twist, properly tied. Well, no one said I have to say it aloud.

Miss Margaret Mackenzie is 19 when her father dies after an illness and she then spends 15 years nursing her brother Walter. Walter is a civil servant, a gentleman. Her other brother Tom dropped any claim to gentlemanliness when he started a business with Mr Rubb. He doesn’t pay much attention to Walter and Margaret. When Margaret was younger, Mr Handcock courted her but her brother selfishly refused his consent to her marriage. He would have needed to find a new nurse, how could he spare her? She spends her best years at the service of selfish man who has no consideration for her. She doesn’t even run Walter’s house, he keeps control over everything.

Margaret is 34 when Walter dies and she inherits his fortune. That was unexpected and she decides it’s time for her to live a little. There’s also a sudden change in the attitude of others towards her.

First, Mr Handcock proposes again. Then, her family who never visited her before is now curiously interested in her. Her brother Tom presses her to come and live with them, although he resents Walter’s choice of an heiress. Her cousins Balls, the aristocratic but poor branch of the family invites her to their house. John, the eldest son is about fifty; he’s a widower with several children to support and needs the extra money. He proposes to her too.

But Margaret is clever and if she’s unconscious of her own worth as a person, she’s perfectly aware of her worth as a rich old-maid. She is very lucid and far less weak than her acquaintances and family expect. She refuses Mr Handcock because she doesn’t like him anymore and because he proposed only after he heard of her money. She refuses John Ball because she doesn’t want to abandon her newly found freedom to a life of duty.

She decides to leave London and settle down in Littlebath. To appease his brother’s claims and to have company, she takes her niece Susanna with her. In Littlebath, she meets the Stumfolds:

But Mr Stumfold at Littlebath had very special views, and was very specially known for them. His friends said that he was evangelical, and his enemies said that he was Low Church. He himself was wont to laugh at these names—for he was a man who could laugh—and to declare that his only ambition was to fight the devil under whatever name he might be allowed to carry on that battle. And he was always fighting the devil by opposing those pursuits which are the life and mainstay of such places as Littlebath. His chief enemies were card-playing and dancing as regarded the weaker sex, and hunting and horse-racing—to which, indeed, might be added everything under the name of sport—as regarded the stronger.

Not exactly a funny place, the Stumfold’s salon and Margaret is rather skeptical and find them a little too zealous for her. There she meets Mr Maguire, Mr Stumfold’s second in command. He soon realizes that Margaret would be a good match for him; he’ll be a respectable clergyman, she’ll bring the money. He proposes.

In Littlebath, she also meets Mr Rubb Junior, who comes to her to borrow money for the Mackenzie & Rubb business. She enjoys his company but alas, he’s not a gentleman. The business is far from booming, Mr Rubb would like to catch her money too and starts courting her.

That makes four lovers in less than a year for our Miss Mackenzie.

As to getting away from all her suitors that was impossible. Had she gone to Littlebath there was one there; had she remained with her sister-in-law, she would have been always near another; and, on going to the Cedars, she would meet the third. But she could not on that account absolutely isolate herself from everybody that she knew in the world.

What will she do?

I loved Margaret Mackenzie as a character. She’s torn between belonging to the Stumbfoldian circle – to any circle actually because she craves for company— and her desire to live and have fun. Trollope points out what the society expects from her:

Would it not have been easier for her—easier and more comfortable—to have abandoned all ideas of the world, and have put herself at once under the tutelage and protection of some clergyman who would have told her how to give away her money, and prepare herself in the right way for a comfortable death-bed?

And later, he also shows that her situation would have been different if she were a man and that the society leads her into thinking that she doesn’t deserve better than the quiet life of an old maid:

A man situated in outer matters as she was situated, possessed of good means, hampered by no outer demands, would have declared to himself clearly that it would be well for him to marry. But he would probably be content to wait a while and would, unless in love, feel the delay to be a luxury. But Miss Mackenzie could not confess as much, even to herself,—could not let herself know that she thought as much; but yet she desired to be married, and dreaded delay. She desired to be married, although she was troubled by some half-formed idea that it would be wicked. Who was she, that she should be allowed to be in love? Was she not an old maid by prescription, and, as it were, by the force of ordained circumstances? Had it not been made very clear to her when she was young that she had no right to fall in love, even with Harry Handcock? And although in certain moments of ecstasy, as when she kissed herself in the glass, she almost taught herself to think that feminine charms and feminine privileges had not been all denied to her, such was not her permanent opinion of herself. She despised herself. Why, she knew not; and probably did not know that she did so. But, in truth, she despised herself, thinking herself to be too mean for a man’s love.

I loved Margaret for her goodness and her cleverness. Margaret has the healthiest relationship with money:

What is the use of money if people cannot be happy together with it? I don’t care a bit for money, Miss Todd; that is, not for itself. I shouldn’t like to be dependent on a stranger; I don’t know that I would like to be dependent again even on a brother; but I should take no shame to be dependent on a husband if he was good to me.”

She has a sure way to assess someone’s character and decipher ulterior motives. She’s able to stand for herself; actually, her money gives her the power to stand for herself, it opens up possibilities. In that sense, Miss Mackenzie is a feminist novel. It shows that a woman can be as sensible as a man, that someone can hardly be free without money. Trollope didn’t give her any of the clichéd traits of a female heroin: she’s strong, she doesn’t wallow into romance, she isn’t shallow or hit by a buying spree when she becomes rich. She’s Emma Bovary’s perfect opposite regarding romance and Ondine Spragg’s perfect opposite regarding money.

I loved this novel. Trollope is so funny; I caught myself chuckling all along the book because of his witty look upon his characters. The pages are filled with irony:

Available hypocrisy is a quality very difficult of attainment and of all hypocrisies, epistolatory hypocrisy is perhaps the most difficult. A man or woman must have studied the matter very thoroughly, or be possessed of great natural advantages in that direction, who can so fill a letter with false expressions of affection, as to make any reader believe them to be true.

But I think he was very fond of Miss Mackenzie himself. He sends little daggers at the Victorian society: he makes fun of the evangelist current in the Church of England, mocks the new dining habits à la russe, questions the central issue of gentlemanliness, exposes the ridiculous snobbery of the aristocrats and silently criticizes the enormous place money holds in his world.

Miss Mackenzie is the first book I read from Guy’s Christmas gifts. He knew I wanted to try Trollope and helped me start with an excellent and short one. Thanks Guy. Miss Mackenzie is translated into French but sadly most of Trollope’s novels are translated at all. It puzzles me, I have to say. Which one should I read next?

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