I’ve been reading a lot of new fiction lately so I was eager to read something from my favourite literary period, the 19th century. Miss Mackenzie had been mentioned a couple of years ago on a BBC radio program on neglected classics as a book that should be reprinted. It was championed by Joanna Trollope, a distant relation of the great Anthony & you can hear what she had to say about Miss Mackenzie here. This is what inspired me to buy this copy from Norilana Books. However, it’s quite heavy & I have the complete works of Trollope on my e-reader so I actually read the book that way. I do like the cover of the Norilana edition though.
Margaret Mackenzie is a spinster in her mid 30s. She has spent the best years of her life caring for her parents &, more recently, her invalid brother, Walter. Margaret’s two brothers, Walter & Thomas, had inherited money from another relative who hadn’t thought it worthwhile to leave anything to a girl. When Walter dies, he leaves everything to Margaret & she suddenly finds herself an heiress. She’s not very rich but she has enough to live on & to spread her wings a little. Thomas had used his inheritance to go into trade & is now a partner in a business selling oilcloth. The business isn’t very prosperous & Thomas resents the fact that Walter left all his money to Margaret.
Margaret is immediately approached by her first suitor, Harry Handcock. She had been in love with Harry years before & they had planned to marry but Walter feared losing his nurse & Harry faded away. His reappearance now that Margaret has money doesn’t recommend him to her & she refuses him. She decides to leave London & move to Littlebath (Trollope’s name for Bath), taking Thomas’s daughter, Susanna, with her as a companion. Margaret will send Susanna to school & plans to leave her money in her will as a way of helping Thomas’s family.
Littlebath society is full of traps for the unwary & a single woman who has lived a retired life must tread carefully. Margaret becomes involved with the circle of an Evangelical preacher, Mr Stumfold, a pompous man with a terrifying wife & an admiring group of ladies to follow him wherever he goes. She becomes friends with Miss Baker &, although she would also like to be friends with Miss Todd, who lives in the same street, she discovers that this isn’t possible. Miss Todd is bold & outspoken & therefore not approved of by Mr Stumfold. Mr Stumfold also has a curate, Jeremiah Maguire, a handsome man with the terrible handicap of a squint which is very offputting. Mr Maguire has ambitions that can only be realised if he marries well & he pursues Margaret.
Thomas’s business partner, Samuel Rubb, arrives in Littlebath to ask Margaret if she would give the business a loan. Mr Rubb is pleasant, amusing but not a gentleman. He seems to admire Margaret but is she the attraction or is it her money? Then, Margaret is invited to stay at The Cedars, the country house of her relations the Balls. Her cousin, John Ball, is a widower with a large family & his mother plans to make a match between John & Margaret. The Balls & the Mackenzies have been estranged for many years because it was John Ball’s uncle who left his money to the Mackenzie brothers rather than to the Balls. John’s father, Sir John, has little money & John lives at the Cedars with his parents & his children. Lady Ball despises Margaret but is graciously willing to overlook her dislike if it means getting the Ball money back into her own family.
At this stage, I was genuinely unsure which of her suitors Margaret would favour. She is a quiet, kind, sensible woman but she’s no pushover. Her brother’s contempt & her sister-in-law’s open dislike & resentment don’t intimidate her. Her formidable aunt, Lady Ball, can’t bully her into marrying John. She’s no snob & doesn’t see being Lady Ball as a reason to marry a man she isn’t sure she can love. She pities his situation & would like to help his children but is that enough? Margaret has a hard time disentangling the motives of her suitors & working out her true feelings. Matters come to a head when her lawyers discover that the money she inherited may not belong to her at all. It may really belong to her cousin, John Ball.
Margaret had refused John’s marriage proposal when he was poor & she was rich. Now that she may have no money at all, he realises that he truly loves her & proposes again. This time she accepts him as she does love him. This infuriates Lady Ball who was only prepared to tolerate the marriage if Margaret had money. Then, Mr Maguire, the curate with the squint, arrives to claim Margaret as his bride (he doesn’t yet know that she may lose her money). He falsely represents their relationship to Lady Ball who is only too happy to believe him. Mr Maguire’s interference threatens to ruin Margaret’s happiness, & there are many anxious hours before the truth is told & Margaret can see her way clear to happiness.
Miss Mackenzie is a lovely book with an absorbing plot & wonderful characters. Trollope is always good at clergymen & Mr Stumfold & the truly awful Mr Maguire are among his best clergymen. It’s also interesting & unusual, in a book published in the 1860s, to have a heroine who is in her 30s. As Joanna Trollope said in her radio piece, at 36, Margaret is so far back on the shelf as to be completely invisible. But, she’s no fool & the three men who come fortune hunting will all find that she’s not an easy target. Lady Ball is a tyrannical matriarch & another of Margaret’s relatives, Clara Mackenzie, who comes to Margaret’s rescue when her money is gone, is kind & loving. Clara is determined that Margaret’s highmindedness won’t prevent her from achieving the happy ending that she so desires.
I feel quite inspired to read more Trollope now that I’m back in the 19th century. Catherine Pope, on her lovely blog, Victorian Geek, has completed her own Trollope Challenge. She’s read all 47 novels & come up with her lists of the ten best & ten terrible Trollopes. Miss Mackenzie doesn’t make either list. Of the best, I’ve read Can You Forgive Her? Barchester Towers & The Way We Live Now. I fancy setting myself the challenge of reading my way through the other seven. Harry Heathcote of Gangoil has an Australian setting & I’m very tempted to start there.
I mentioned above that I have Trollope’s complete works on my e-reader. I know I could have got them for free from ManyBooks or Gutenburg but I paid the princely sum of $5AU for them from Delphi Classics. It was much easier to do one download rather than 47 & they’re well-formatted & it’s easy to get to the book I want. The Delphi editions also often include contemporary biographies of the author as well as all the novels, short stories, poetry (Hardy), non-fiction & plays. I also have the Delphi complete editions of Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy & Elizabeth Gaskell.