I think of Margaret Oliphant, with Rhoda Broughton, as among the more subversive women authors of the Victoria period. This book was published the same year as her astonishing Kirsteen, but it is a more conventional story. It is only in marriage, we are told more than once, that women find purpose, meaning, and true life. It decides for most women "whether their lives shall be lonely and in great measure objectless, or busy and full of interest and occupation." I couldn't help thinking of Kirsteen there, or the unmarried women in Louisa May Alcott's books who (like their author) find life "busy and full of interest and occupation." (As I have mentioned before, I find my own State of Single Blessedness busy and full of interest and occupation.)
I know from Margaret Oliphant's own autobiography that she read Jane Austen, and to me this book has echoes of Persuasion. The part of Sir Walter Elliot is played by the Duke of Billingsgate, pickled in the pride of his noble ancestors and stuffed full of the dignity of his own role. Unfortunately, his means aren't equal to his pride, or to the style of life that he inherited. He is facing a serious financial crisis - except that he isn't facing it, he's ignoring it. Like Sir Walter, he is blessed with a sensible wife, and he is lucky enough to still have her. The Duchess like Lady Elliot has been doing all she can to bring some measure "of method, moderation, and economy" to their lives, with little success. The Duke has an heir - a son, not a distant cousin - but he is as little pleased with his son's marriage as Sir Walter was with Mr Elliot's. Lord Hungerford chose a young woman whose father made his fortune in the City. She is rich and handsome, and she has already produced three sons. None of that cancels out her impure blood, in the Duke's eyes. He has pinned all his hopes on his daughter, Lady Jane. She will make a proper marriage, if only he can find a candidate who meets his strict requirements as to family, rank, and fortune. Meanwhile, Lady Jane meets someone as ineligible as Captain Wentworth: Reginald Winton, a commoner, though a wealthy one of good family. Her mother discovers her secret, and sensibly decides her daughter's happiness is the most important thing. But the Duke sets himself to thwart Duchess, daughter, and the thief who is trying to steal his daughter.
This is a fun story, more light-hearted than Kirsteen, with some elements of both the fairy tale and the Gothic. At one point a member of the Royal Family steps in to help bring about a happy ending (discretely left unnamed, but I'm guessing the Princess of Wales). To me, the Duchess is the true heroine of the story. Like many of Oliphant's women characters, she works tirelessly behind the scenes to care for family members (as Oliphant did herself, for the husband, sons, and adopted children supported by her writing). The men in her books are so often weaker or less capable than the women, yet they have power and authority that the women don't. The women realize the weakness of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, that they will have to be the practical and strong ones.
"I hope you will allow that she is my daughter as well," the Duchess said, with the half laugh, half rage natural to a woman long accustomed to deal with an impractical man. She was obliged to laugh at his serious contempt of her, less she should do worse.
Maybe Margaret Oliphant too was obliged to laugh, lest she do worse. The anger still leaks through her books in places, even in this more conventional story with its princesses and castles.