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  • Passing for Real:Class and Mimicry in Miss Marjoribanks
  • Susan Zlotnick (bio)

Margaret Oliphant began Miss Marjoribanks, in her popular Chronicle of Carlingford series, at the same moment that she finally resolved her children’s future. After her beloved daughter Maggie died in Rome, in 1864, Oliphant wandered the Continent with her two young sons for nearly eighteen months before she decided to settle permanently in England. Not one to do things by halves, Oliphant rented a house in Windsor and enrolled her sons at Eton, although attending an exclusive public school was hardly their birthright. As the daughter of a Scottish clerk and the widow of a stained-glass artist, Oliphant entered the privileged precincts of Windsor and her sons entered Eton as thorough outsiders. The move to Windsor prompted Oliphant’s biographer, Elisabeth Jay, to note that the “social distance Margaret had traveled in under twenty years by her own literary efforts can be judged by comparing the street in Everton where she and her family had lived in 1849 with the house she now took in the best residential area of the royal borough of Windsor” (19). Despite Oliphant’s upward climb from the modest artistic circles she inhabited with her husband to Clarence Crescent, Windsor, Jay believes that there is “little evidence that Mrs. Oliphant recognized herself as ‘coming from the wrong side of the tracks’” (199). Oliphant may never have identified herself as an interloper, but her family’s social trajectory seems to have been on her mind when she wrote Miss Marjoribanks, because the real social spaces of her life (Everton, Windsor, the Continent) reappear in the novel as symbolic social spaces: Grove Street for the artistic Lake family, Grange Lane for Carlingford’s gentility, and the Continent for the novel’s failures.

Even if Oliphant never acutely suffered on account of her humble origins, surely the prospect of raising two sons brought home to her the complications of her social position. By educating her sons at Eton (and later Oxford), Oliphant was betting on the fact that such impeccable training would allow Cyril and Tiddy to inhabit the role of (or to acquire the habits of) gentlemen, and they thus would at least escape the social discomfort that characterized Oliphant’s own entry into London literary society as a young woman married to a struggling artist. “I got as quickly as I could into the corner and stood there, rather wistfully wishing to know people” (76), she recalls in her Autobiography, adding that her “shyness and complete unacquaintance with the [End Page 173] ways of people who gave parties” (75–76) exasperated both her hostesses and her husband. Indeed, Agnes, the novel Oliphant published immediately prior to Miss Marjoribanks, explores the unhappiness of a blacksmith’s daughter who marries up and must navigate through drawing rooms that appear to her as “a foreign country” (242). Oliphant’s first forays into upper-middle-class society may have made her feel that she too was in a “foreign country,” but those evenings were not a complete loss; she seems to have gleaned something from her observation post in the corner because she uses the figure of the society hostess in Miss Marjoribanks to think provocatively about class and gender. That she should choose the hostess as the figure through which to explore middle-class women is not surprising given that sociability along with household management were imagined as the main duties of the bourgeois lady: articles on “how to entertain” were a staple of middle-class ladies’ magazines from the 1850s onward, and etiquette books, which began appearing in vast quantities in the 1830s, largely focused on introducing the wives and daughters of the nouveaux riches to the protocols of polite society.1

Miss Marjoribanks, which is less interested in whom the eponymous heroine will marry than in whom she will invite into her drawing room, can be read as an origin story for the upper middle class, offering a myth of its genesis that safely makes room for the likes of Oliphant (or at least her sons) to enter. Criticism of the novel has largely focused on Lucilla Marjoribanks as an exemplum of middle...


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pp. 173-192
Launched on MUSE
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