Miss Mackenzie is the title of a less-famous novel by Anthony Trollope, but it’s one I’ve been fascinated by ever since I read it a few years ago. It’s one of the volumes the Erewash Press brought out in very inexpensive editions over the last couple of months, and I wrote an introduction for that edition. I’ve posted most of it below, since it deals with some of the themes I find most intriguing in Trollope: manners, religion, satire and the way small groups of people develop little subculture. There are a few mild plot spoilers in what follows, though I’ve cut out any mentions of what happens in the conclusive movements of the plot. If you’d like a copy of the novel, our edition is only £2.50.
Miss Mackenzie was published in 1865, and offered a premise which might appeal to many current novelists. An unexpected inheritance provides independence to a woman whom her own society had essentially written off, allowing her to choose the direction of her own life for the first time. She tries to reconcile these new possibilities with her sense of obligation to various branches of her family, and the chance of marriage to three men who may be after her money as much as her heart. Though it has not become one of Trollope’s most famous novels, it offers a number of memorable characters along with the author’s usual set of moral dilemmas, marriage angst, and men behaving shabbily.
Amongst those memorable characters, the Stumfold entourage stand out. The focus of one of the ways of life available to Miss Mackenzie in Littlebath, the Stumfolds are strongly redolent of the Proudies’ household in Barchester Towers. The parallels are obvious: a clerical family with a strong Evangelical flavour, a domineering wife who wishes to run the parish as her own fiefdom, a conniving chaplain who is initially an ally of the wife, but who is eventually expelled in disgrace, and who aspires to marry the heroine of the novel. It would be a mistake, however, to simply read them as a recapitulation of the theme as played out in Trollope’s great clerical novels, though the repetition of figures and situations certainly suggests particular patterns in Trollope’s imagination and sympathies. The Stumfold set and their activities amongst themselves are described in rather more depth and detail, and Trollope gives a shrewd (and not totally unsympathetic) portrait of a particular religious culture.
If too much of this essay is taken up with discussing the Stumfolds, despite them not appearing in the majority of the novel, I can offer in mitigation the fact that the readers of Trollope’s own time were also struck by these characters. When the book was first published, the reviewer for The Spectator complained that Mr. Stumfold didn’t receive his due portion of the novel, and hoped he would reappear in another book:
That Mr. Stumfold sang always, and that his lute had twenty strings, we feel no doubt at all; and therefore regret the more deeply that Mr. Trollope should only have given us the tune of one of them. Let us hope that he has kept his song with the trumpets and his song with the shawms,—by the way, it would be quite in Mr. Stumfold’s line to explain the exact nature of a shawm, and make a cheery application thereof, which would have the advantage of instructing ignorant Christians all over England, —for some other book. Still we must reproach Mr, Trollope for giving us so brief a glimpse of so admirable a figure.
The most obvious markers of the Stumfold group are the things they don’t do: they don’t play cards, they don’t receive letters on a Sunday, they (mostly) don’t attend parties or social engagements with people whom the group consider unsuitable. This is the familiar image of low-church or Evangelical piety from the Victorian era. Indeed, it is many people’s image of Victorian Christianity in general, defined in terms of activities ‘modern” people think are fine, but which were considered improper or unsuitable by those in the past. The Stumfold set’s disapproval of the people who spend their time in ‘worldly” or ‘fashionable” pursuits like balls and card parties fits with this image of Puritan and self-righteous piety. Just as interesting are the things which they do and the habits which mark them out. There are the meetings hosted by the Stumfolds’ house (in a house actually owned by Mrs. Stumfold’s father), at which they indulge in tea and religious conversation. Miss Mackenzie is rather startled by the tone in which Mr. Stumfold expounds the Bible:
And Miss Mackenzie was much astonished at the special freedom of his manner,—how he spoke of St Paul as Paul, declaring the saint to have been a good fellow; how he said he liked Luke better than Matthew, and how he named even a holier name than these with infinite ease and an accustomed familiarity which seemed to delight the other ladies; but which at first shocked her in her ignorance.
The ‘at first” and ‘in her ignorance” are slightly ironic here: Miss Mackenzie’s instincts are demonstrated to be sound elsewhere in the novel. But it is the informality and lack of reverence which she finds surprising about the discussion of religion at the Stumfold tea party, not their solemnity and self-denial. In fact there is a conscious and mild ‘naughtiness” about the atmosphere which Trollope sketches, as seen when Mr. Stumfold makes a joke about wanting his tea more than he wants to preach:
Then they all laughed again at the absurd idea of this great and good man preferring his food,—his food of this world,—to that other food which it was his special business to dispense. There is nothing which the Stumfoldian ladies of Littlebath liked so much as these little jokes which bordered on the profanity of the outer world, which made them feel themselves to be almost as funny as the sinners, and gave them a slight taste, as it were, of the pleasures of iniquity.
The Stumfoldians have their own rules to live by, their own social life, their own pecking order, and even their own jokes. It’s a neat depiction of the entire way of life which can grow up around a group of people convinced of their own rightness and concerned to keep an eye on the way each other’s lives fall in line with their shared principles. The ‘little jokes” which ‘gave them a slight taste…of the pleasure of iniquity” are not a contradiction of their religious ideas and the subculture they have built around them, they are the most refined development of them. The Stumfoldians do not even need to go outside their own religious society to indulge in naughtiness and mild transgressions, even that can be done inside the circle of the faithful. They don’t just have Stumfold-approved virtues, they have Stumfold-approved vices as well.
The completeness of their subculture is emphasized by the jargon Mr. Maguire uses to invite Miss Mackenzie to be one of them:
‘Do; come and live among us, and be one of us; come and partake with us at the feast which we are making ready; come and eat of our crusts, and dip with us in the same dish; come and be of our flock, and go with us into the pleasant pastures, among the lanes and green hedges which appertain to the farm of the Lord. Come and walk with us through the Sabbath cornfields, and pluck the ears when you are a-hungered, disregarding the broad phylacteries. Come and sing with us songs of a joyful heart, and let us be glad together. What better can you do, Miss Mackenzie? I don’t believe there is a more healthy place in the world than Littlebath, and, considering that the place is fashionable, things are really very reasonable.”
He was rapid in his utterance, and so full of energy, that Miss Mackenzie did not quite follow him in his quick transitions. She hardly understood whether he was advising her to take up an abode in a terrestrial Eden or a celestial Paradise; but she presumed that he meant to be civil, so she thanked him and said she thought she would.
However eloquent Mr. Maguire’s rapid flow of words may be, with their many Biblical echoes, they are undermined by the fact that they do not actually communicate much to the person being addressed. Despite his framing his speech as an entreaty for Miss Mackenzie to join their society, she remains uncertain what exactly she is being asked. There are a few satirical implications here, both of which subtly shape our developing understanding of Mr. Maguire and his character. Firstly, he is part of a group who have their own internal and rather clubbish language, to the extent that he cannot bring himself to abandon the group’s way of speaking even when self-consciously speaking from inside the Stumfold circle to someone who has not yet joined it.
Secondly, his rather florid religiosity seems less designed to make his meaning clear to Miss Mackenzie than to show off his oratorical talents. There is a sly dig here at the contradiction between proclaiming a desire to share the Gospel with everyone in Britain, and the using convoluted and obscure language to do so. Thirdly, Mr. Maguire has chosen an unfortunate episode from the Bible to compare with the life of the Stumfoldians when he suggests that she should ‘Come and walk with us through the Sabbath cornfields, and pluck the ears when you are a-hungered, disregarding the broad phylacteries.” The reference is to the story related in the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus and his companions picked some corn to eat on the Sabbath and were rebuked for this by the Pharisees (Jesus’ reply provided the saying ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.) However, the Stumfold set have very precise rules about what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath, (such as not receiving letters), which doesn’t suggest the kind of spiritual freedom the story is recommending. Mr Maguire has chosen an episode from the Gospel which might point out to an onlooker how much more he and his friends resemble the Pharisees than Jesus and the apostles.
Mr. Maguire is capable of speaking in a much more straightforward way as we discover later on in the novel. When he comes to leave the Stumfold set, in his account because Mrs. Stumfold ‘has…made herself so unendurable”, he makes a very different-sounding proposition to Miss Mackenzie:
Now the opening for a clergyman with pure Gospel doctrines would be the best thing that has turned up for a long time. The church would be worth over six hundred a year, besides the interest of the money which would have to be laid out. I could have all this commenced at once, and secure the incumbency, if I could myself head the subscription list with two thousand pounds. It should not be less than that. You will understand that the money would not be given, though, no doubt, a great many persons would, in this way, be induced to give theirs. But the pew rents would go in the first instance to provide interest for the money not given, but lent; as would of course be the case with your money, if you would advance it. I should not think of such a plan as this if I did not feel that it was the best thing for your interests; that is, if, as I fondly hope, I am ever to call you mine.
As she realizes, this is a quite straightforward swindle. A new church is being established, and Mr. Maguire hopes he can be appointed to be its minister if he can raise the sum of two thousand pounds to be the biggest of the charitable ‘subscribers” to the project. However, although most people would be giving their money as a donation, his contribution (or rather Miss Mackenzie’s) would be a loan at commercial rates of interest, which would receive interest payments from the income of the church. (The ‘pew rents” were a familiar form of church fundraising at the time, equivalent to the direct debit or covenanted giving schemes which many churches operate today to provide a more stable income from their congregation than whatever happens to go into the collection plate on a Sunday.)
Thus a large and profitable business is to be established with other people’s (donated) capital, and then Maguire is to make an interest-bearing loan to the business and be paid out of the profits. There will need to be a certain amount of lying, or at least careful misrepresentation, to those giving their money, but otherwise it is quite straightforward. The whole scheme is a piece of financial chicanery which some of Trollope’s stock-broking villains might envy. As the narrator comments, ‘she had wit enough to see through the whole project: how outsiders were to be induced to give their money, thinking that all was to be given; whereas those inside the temple – those who knew all about it – were simply to make for themselves a good speculation”. Mr. Maguire’s style and tone has changed significantly, though he is still asking her to join a religious group. The difference here is that she is being invited into the inner circle, not to be one of the followers, and so he writes clearly, without the florid jumble of his earlier suggestion.
All this might imply that the whole religious life represented by the Stumfolds is a complete sham, and – even worse – a hypocritical way of exerting power over other people whilst taking their money. Described in this way, it sounds close to the definition of a cult. But Trollope’s portrayal stops short of identifying Mr. Maguire’s machinations with the Stumfold set’s religion. It is only after Maguire breaks with them that he suggests this church swindle, and there is a suggestion at the tea party that Mr. Stumfold’s preaching may do some good. Whilst discussing the Acts of the Apostles, Mr. Stumfold asks a riddle, with the same lack of reverence which surprised Miss Mackenzie in his discussion of St Paul and St Luke: ‘Why was Peter in prison like a little boy with his shoes off?”
‘That’s so like him,” said Mr Maguire. All the ladies in the room were in a fever of expectation, and Mr Stumfold asked the riddle again. ‘He won’t tell them till we meet again; but there isn’t one here who won’t study the life of St Peter during the next week. And what they’ll learn in that way they’ll never forget.” ‘But why was he like a little boy with his shoes off?” asked Miss Mackenzie. ‘Ah! That’s Stumfold’s riddle. You must ask Mr Stumfold, and he won’t tell you till next week. But some of the ladies will be sure to find it out before then.
Stumfold’s manner may be rather shocking and inappropriate to Miss Mackenzie, but it is clear that it works, for his followers at least. He genuinely wishes his listeners to read the Bible and think about what it means, and his hearty, jocular style is apparently the right way to teach his set. For Trollope, a staunch supporter of the Church of England and a novelist concerned with Christianity in the Britain of the time, a whole roomful of people being convinced to read the Book of Acts avidly for the next week was surely a good thing. The novelist and his implied readers might find the style and the social tone rather distasteful, but Trollope does not condemn either the preacher or his results. The shrewdness with which he draws the Stumfold way of life includes a degree of fairness about the good it may do as well as the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and greed it may hide.
Nonetheless, social tone and manners matter seriously in Miss Mackenzie, as much more than questions of etiquette. The inheritance which starts the narrative changes the heroine’s situation drastically, though it is not entirely clear what it has changed into. Indeed, this is part of the excitement of the opening chapters, as she considers, for the first time, what sort of life she might decide to lead with her new relative degree of freedom. It is also the root of much of the humour in the early Littlebath scenes, as Miss Mackenzie turns up to survey the various ways of life open to her and coolly weighs up the pleasures to be had from going in for an Evangelical lifestyle or a card-playing one. Her social dislocation is at once the catalyst for the novel’s narrative, the source of her control over the plot, and a ‘problem” to be solved by the end of the book.
It is a problem because a level of uncertainty and instability comes with the exciting social disruption. (And when it doesn’t, Trollope supplies it by the inheritance imploding, or containing extra money, or being reshuffled to someone else.) The three suitors between whom Miss Mackenzie chooses during the novel present three different spheres of life in which she might end up. John Ball represents the landed aristocracy, Mr. Maguire represents the clergy and Mr. Rubb represents commerce. Though realistically a woman like Miss Mackenzie would have met a number of men who would consider her an eligible match, Trollope narrows down her options to a representative selection of society. There is even a hint of the medieval notion of the ‘three estates”: the scheme which divided the nation into nobility, clergy and commons.
As they appear in the novel, these are not absolute distinctions of social class, and they contain variation within them which might make life easier, or more respectable. John Ball, for example, may be part of a noble family but he is no wealthy enough to live comfortably in the style which suits his position, and Mr. Rubb’s relations insists that they are ‘merchants” rather than engaged in ‘retail” or ‘trade” because they do not sell to the general public. Nonetheless, accepting any of the three would involve the heroine in a very different kind of life, and establish her social role for good. Whether she will be a baronet’s wife, or a merchant’s, or a clergyman’s, will not simply be a question of her income or her hobbies. It will define her, and her future life, with a security which many modern readers may find less attractive and satisfying than the author or many contemporary readers.
This issue connects the more obvious choice over her preferred way of life in Littlebath in the early parts of the novel to the extended courtship later on. It also brings the passages of social satire, which can seem like incidental sniping, in line with the heroine’s main concerns. Whether Mr. Rubb should wear yellow gloves, or whether ladies should be proud of being told they have laid aside ‘decorum” or ‘ceremony”, or whether dishes at dinner should be served in courses or all at once, are all incidental issues in one sense. They are the sort of details which a skilful novelist picks up on in order to depict the social habits of their time. They can give contemporary readers an immediate and instinctive understanding of what these people are like, what sort of life they lead, and even who the characters might remind them of in real life. For later readers (such as us), they provide intriguing puzzles as to how we’re supposed to feel, and an enjoyable sense of immersion in the physical details of the period.
As we scrutinise these details, Miss Mackenzie is doing likewise, trying to evaluate her own responses to them, and find her own place in the social world. Her noticing of Mr. Rubb’s gloves allows us to see them, and also to see her noticing them. In an even further layer of commentary, we watch her noticing her own reaction, and wondering whether this makes her uncharitable, or picky, or whether she could change her reaction in time. The depiction of social life, with its solecisms and trivialities as well as its good humour, at which Trollope excels is folded into the plot itself. Which is not to say that there isn’t a great deal of social detail and social satire in the novel for its own sake, especially when it comes to depicting characters who are rather below Trollope and his assumed readers in the social scale. But the noticing – and even judging – of manners and clothes is part of both the inside and the outside action of the story.
The result of this social scrutiny is largely conservative, which is unsurprising in a novelist like Trollope. Along with a lot of social satire – perhaps even the majority of it – Trollope’s making fun of frivolity and pretension in social life strongly implies that everyone would be better off in they knew their place and stayed in it. The failed dinner party prompts a direct speech from the author in which he opines how much happier men with eight hundred a year would be if they just entertained their friends in a good, wholesome, hearty way, rather than allowing their wives to reach after false refinement and fashionable manners. The party is being mocked (and pitied) for its attempt to copy the lifestyle of those higher in the social sphere, without the means to do so. The Spectator review I mentioned above also objected to the dinner party scene, but only because the satire wasn’t accurate enough:
But we are sure no boastful woman, whose husband had 800/. a year, would have bought only a single bottle of champagne for such an entertainment as her’s. She is not meant to be stingy, and was far more likely to have been lavish of her champagne than penurious; but excepting this slight touch of caricature, Mrs. Tom Mackenzie and her dinner-party are very amusing.
When those of higher rank are mocked, like the Balls whose coach outings are tacitly determined by the fact that they have to hire the use of the equipage rather than owning their own, the ridicule might be evened up a little, but it is no less conservative in its general conclusions. The implied problem with the Balls is that they haven’t managed their lands and money in a way that supports the place they should be inhabiting in society. They may be as foolish as individual people (though in fact Trollope doesn’t paint them in as comic colours as those lower down the scale), but the satire implies that they should be competently and solvently in charge of things.
Every genuine satire assumes a true system of values behind the mockery, which both author and reader share, a ‘proper” state of affairs from which the picture shown diverges, and against which it can be measured. (This partly explains the strong association between the British political establishment and its popular satirists such as Private Eye and Yes, Minister: they attack the current state of affairs not because they think the political establishment is contemptible as an idea, but because they want to restore it to some imagined state of excellence in the past.) Trollope often relies strongly on this aspect of satire in his other books, to persuade readers of his point of view via comedy, and jolly them into agreement with his assumed values. This is most obvious in plots were explicit institutional reforms are at stake, in the church or in politics. He can have sympathy for reformers and can write eloquently or emotively on their behalf, but the tendency of his comedy is often towards laughing people out of their ideas and back to the ways things were in the past.