Seasons and Spaces as they Define Lucilla Marjoribanks

Miss MarjoribanksMargaret Oliphant, in her novel Miss Marjoribanks, uses the seasons and external spaces to indicate the status of Lucilla Marjoribanks’ social influence. At the age of nineteen, Lucilla enters Carlingford and crafts it into the social sphere of her desire. Her own thriving garden, in what appears to be summer by its established lawn and shrubs, represents her full sense of social influence over her newly formed society. The initial wane of her influence is suggested through the imagery of Mrs. Mortimer’s garden as fall approaches. Lucilla’s complete social dormancy is represented by the encroachment of winter as she mourns her father’s death. When she is once again feeling ambitious, summer has returned and she is ready to nurture the entire village at Marchbanks into new growth. While these seasonal settings are not representative of a chronological year, they are strategically placed to represent the seasons of Lucilla’s life as she experiences it.

Lucilla’s initial abilities as Carlingford’s social leader are evident in Oliphant’s garden imagery early in the novel:

By this time the garden was full of pretty figures and pleasant voices, and under the lime tree there was a glimmer of yellow light from the lamps, and on the other side the moon was coming up steadily like a ball of silver over the dark outlines of Carlingford; and even the two voices which swelled forth up-stairs in the fullest accord, betraying nothing personal sentiments of their owners, were not more agreeable to hear than the rustle and murmur of sound which rose all over Dr. Marjoribanks’ lawn and pretty shrubbery. (134)

This seamless integration of society and nature illustrate Lucilla’s “natural ability” to mold the constructs of her social sphere. Lucilla’s planned concentration of light under the lime tree is significant because the lime tree is traditionally known to possess protective power against evil and catastrophe. Symbolically, Lucilla uses this to thwart the threat posed by Cavendish as he diverts his attention from Lucilla to Barbara. Lucilla’s name itself means light and her far reaching impact is represented by the moon rising over the dark outlines and people of Carlingford. Her voice too is likened to the murmur of a breeze over the lawn and shrubs, blending with Barbara’s in a sweet melody that speaks of her control over her passions. She is seen mingling with all including Barbara, a perceived enemy, without faltering. Each of these garden details illustrates how Lucilla is at the peak of influential power at the beginning of the novel.

Approaching the time of fall, when the harvest is nearly ripe, the garden Lucilla creates for Mrs. Mortimer’s school yard appears withered and broken much like Lucilla’s image of herself:

Miss Marjoribanks could not help observing that the branches of the pear-tree, which was that the garden contained in the shape of fruit, had come loose from the wall, and were swaying about greatly to the damage of the half grown pears … it is astonishing how many little things go wrong when the man or woman with a hundred eyes is absent for a few days from the helm of affairs … the espalier had got detached, some of the verbenas were dead in the borders, and the half of the sticks that propped up the dahlias had fallen, leaving the plants in miserable confusion. (203)

In this passage Oliphant suggests the wane of Lucilla’s influence. This garden is significant because Lucilla creates it in attempt to both manage and establishing Mrs. Mortimer in Carlingford. Leaving the garden to the attention of anybody but herself, a woman with a hundred eyes, has had a disintegrating effect. This line reveals that only Lucilla can keep an eye in every direction but she has been absent from this space. The pear-tree is particularly telling because it traditionally represents lust and desire which, like Lucilla’s love interest, is damaged and bruised. The pears are merely half formed, meaning that Lucilla’s lust for the Archdeacon is not fully realized when he abandons her company to speak with Mrs. Mortimer. Lucilla’s immediate thought in response is to perform the job of garden maintenance, tying up the pears and dismantling the confusion of the plants. With this she seeks to find the secret connection behind Mrs. Mortimer and the Archdeacon. Essentially, when forces beyond the reach of Lucilla’s influence take their toll, she might temporarily lose control, yet she does eventually maintain it.

The encroachment of the snow on the night of her father’s death suggests Lucilla’s pending dormancy:

Meantime, the snow fell heavily outside, and wrapped everything in a soft and secret whiteness. And amid the whiteness and darkness, the lamp burned steadily outside at the garden-gate … that night the snow cushioned the wire outside, and even made white cornices and columns about the steady lamp, and the Doctor slept within. (396)

This illustrates how the beginning of Lucilla’s dormant and mourning state affects not only her, but the town as well. The snow falling around the house also falls around the whole of Carlingford. Thursday evenings are about to be suspended The Doctor’s bell is silenced as the snow cushions the wire, telling that he is dead. At the same time, the light burning at the garden-gate is slowly dimmed by stacking flakes, just as darkening circumstances are about to stack up against Lucilla. Still, as the light in the lantern never goes out, Lucilla continues to illuminate her space from within the house.

When Lucilla reaches her new peak of ambition, fueled by her marriage to Tom, summer has returned once more.

… the sight of the village at Marchbank was sweet to her eyes … It occupied a great deal more than the gardens did … Lucilla’s eye went out over the moral wilderness with the practical glance of a statesman, and at the same time, the sanguine enthusiasm of a philanthropist. She saw of what it was capable, and already, in imagination, the desert blossomed like a rose before he beneficent steps, and the sweet sense of well doing rose in her breast. (494)

While Tom takes on the actual gardens of Marchbank, Lucilla envisions the influence of her illumination on all of Marchbank village. In the moral wilderness, she sees an untamed society barren of social skills, waiting to be formed by her masterful hand. She sees the desert blossom like a rose at her feet, just as she believes the less fortunate will gratefully bloom before her with her assistance. As she did at Carlingford ten years prior, she can imagine the possibilities for the people here and she has every intention of bringing their new society to fruition. This challenge requires more skill than she exerted in Carlingford because the social landscape has never been primed as it was there. Through this hopeful vision, we are led to believe that if Lucilla can imagine it, she can achieve it. Summer will bloom under her authority.

Oliphant’s use of seasons and space indicates more than Lucilla Marjoribanks’ social influence. In each instance, it becomes obvious that Lucilla, regardless of her situation, is never fully defeated. Cavendish’s betrayal has little impact as her ability to rise above is represented with thriving garden-scapes. Mrs. Mortimer’s garden reveals a stumbling block and nothing more, for when the Archdeacon abandons her for Mrs. Mortimer, Lucilla simply talks of maintaining her power and dismantling the confusion. In the face of her father’s death, Lucilla’s light is dim and dormant under the snow but it never goes out. In the end, she is rejuvenated and ready for an entirely new project beyond her accomplishments in Carlingford. Her constant triumph reveals that she will likely succeed as she tends to her goals at Marchbank.

Works Cited

Oliphant, Margaret. Miss Marjoribanks. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

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