by Anthony Trollope
“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.” ― Anthony Trollope
A single woman of a certain age entertains suitors and encounters financial and other interesting issues in this engaging novel by Anthony Trollope. I recently discovered this when our book group selected Miss Mackenzie as our first novel of the new year.
Margaret Mackenzie has spent her life until the age of 35 nursing her father and brother, both of whom have lived restricted and selfish lives as minor civil servants. The death of her brother leaves her with a comfortable fortune and she decides to use it to live more enjoyably and, if possible, get married. She takes charge of one of her nieces and, leaving London, moves to the spa of Littlebath, thus setting up the one satisfying and useful relationship in the book and escaping her terrible sister-in-law. Littlebath is a typical small community with single ladies with adequate incomes, many of whom she meets at the social events arranged by the evangelical clergyman Mr Stumfold and his domineering wife. Two of the ladies – the genteel and timid Stumfoldian Miss Baker, and the raffish and amusing anti-Stumfoldian Miss Todd – present positive models of single life which nonetheless do not attract Miss Mackenzie.
Three suitors emerge for Margaret and her money, none particularly attractive: her cousin John Ball, an undeniable gentleman but older, dreary, materialistic and attached to a disastrously dire mother (old Lady Ball); Tom’s partner, Samuel Rubb, who is amusing, good-looking and intelligent, but lower-middle-class and not very scrupulous; and a Stumfoldian curate, Mr Maguire. Maguire is one of Trollope’s stereotyped evangelicals -- hypocritical, slimy and physically very off-putting. In the course of time all three make offers of marriage and Margaret indecisively rejects all three.
Margaret encounters financial setbacks, but her mercenary suitors do not disappear. Rubb has deceived her financially but likes her personally and would stand by her. Maguire is convinced that John Ball has cheated Margaret, and thus destroyed his own chances of wealth, and starts a gutter-press campaign against him. John realizes that he is actually fond of Margaret, and gradually finds the will to resist his mother’s hostility to her. Despite her initial rejection of all three Margaret appears to consider each of them until the denouement when she makes a momentous decision.
She is helped by a rather glamorous upper-class cousin who appears from Scotland and this allows Trollope to introduce a truly appalling bazaar attended by a group of ladies from the Palliser and Barsetshire novels, perhaps to provide an upper-class counterpart to a pretentious middle-class dinner at Tom’s earlier.
While many of the characters are unpleasant and petty-minded Miss Mackenzie has sufficient good humor and common sense to buoy the reader. While she started her new life eager for social contacts and simple pleasures, these modest ambitions are largely disappointed. The novel, thankfully, is not merely a study of the oppressiveness of the conditions of life of women in the eighteen-sixties, and of the restrictiveness of class thinking. Rather it is what for this reader was a typical Trollope novel; filled with interesting characters and delightful prose. It had been too long since I had read a novel by Anthony Trollope and the enjoyment reminded me why I am always glad when I return to his work.