Who is Miss Mackenzie? And what is she doing in this play?
When Jane Juska says in her New York Review of Books advertisement ‘If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me’ she’s not just making a witty quip (the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the noun ‘trollop’ is ‘disreputable girl or woman’) she’s also making a bold statement about who she is. Not only is she is advertising for sex at the age of 66, but she is also making it clear that she is a well-educated and intelligent woman. Possibly a risky tactic.
'Shakespeare works for me' or 'Dickens works for me' wouldn't have been nearly so funny, but also it wouldn't have told us quite as much about her. Anyone who is intimately familiar with Anthony Trollope is serious about their English literature. In her memoir A Round-Heeled Woman we come to know that for Jane Juska literature is more than just a job, a means to make a living, it is her passion, her first true love. And importantly, one that has never let her down. So when she advertises for sex and declares to the world 'Trollope works for me' she bears her soul in more ways than one.
Anthony Trollope was hugely prolific and very much a ‘best-seller’ in his day. His droll and clever portrayals of Victorian society are packed full of sharply drawn characters and dense, convoluted plots and along the way he also grapples with more serious aspects of society: religion, political corruption and the power of the press. All of which account for the enduring popularity of his books and of the many BBC television adaptations of his work over the years – from The Last Chronicles of Barsetshire in 1959, into the 21st century with two highly acclaimed adaptations by Andrew Davies – The Way We Live Now in 2001 with David Suchet, Matthew Macfadyen and Shirley Henderson and He Knew He Was Right, in 2004, starring Bill Nighy, David Tennant and Laura Fraser. And in between the epic and enormously influential television drama The Pallisers in 1974 – all six novels in the Palliser series dramatised over 26 weeks – starring Roger Livesey, Susan Hampshire and a young Jeremy Irons. Then in the 1980s The Barchester Chronicles covered two out of the six ‘Barsetshire’ novels (The Warden and Barchester Towers) with an all-star cast including Donald Pleasence, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman and Geraldine McEwan.
Born in London in 1815, as an adult Trollope worked for the General Post Office and lived in Ireland for many years, where he married and had two sons. His career with the post office was impressive – he travelled extensively in the course of his duties and was responsible for introducing the pillar box for posting letters to the streets of Great Britain.
His first novel was published in 1847 but it wasn’t until the publication of his fourth, The Warden, in 1855 that he began to make an impact on the Victorian literary scene. For more than a decade he maintained these two demanding jobs: writing daily to a strict timetable alongside his responsibilities as a senior post office official. By the time he finally retired from the GPO in 1867, he had achieved considerable fame and had already written many of his major works.
By the mid 1860’s he was well-known in literary circles and was on good terms with other high-profile figures of the day such as William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot and the painter Millais. As his popularity grew, so did his wealth: he was notorious for demanding large advances from his publishers and was vociferous in his defence of artists’ rights to be well remunerated for their work just as a lawyer or a doctor might. By the time he died in 1882 he had written 47 novels, plus travel books, plays, short stories, biographies and an autobiography which was published posthumously.
Throughout her memoir, Jane Juska makes many literary references but in particular to Trollope’s novel, Miss Mackenzie which he published in 1865. In her adaptation of A Round-Heeled Woman Jane Prowse draws on the parallels between the two books and uses episodes in the story of Miss Mackenzie’s search for love to illustrate Jane Juska’s more modern quest for sex with a man she likes.
Miss Mackenzie is the story of a woman who, at the age of 36 is very much ‘on the shelf’. Here Trollope immediately breaks with the literary conventions of the day by writing about a plain, middle-aged (at least by 19th century standards) spinster rather than bright and beautiful young things looking for love.
Margaret Mackenzie has spent her life so far doing the right thing – firstly looking after her ageing father and then, following his death, her ailing brother. When he dies she is left a small fortune and the story begins. Four different men begin to pay her the kind of attention she never received when she was penniless and for the first time in her life she is in a position to make choices. With the money comes a degree of control and she chooses to flout the conventions of society by refusing to accept the first offer of marriage that comes her way.
By advertising for sex Jane Juska also flouts the conventions of a society which, however liberal it may be compared to the one in which Miss Mackenzie lived, is even so still shocked by the notion of a woman actively seeking sex, especially a woman in late middle-age. But by advertising for sex, she too obtains a degree of control.
Both women come to a point where they decide enough is enough and it’s time for them:
She had resolved that she would not content herself with a lifeless life... She would go into the world, and see if she could find any of those pleasantnesses of which she had read in books... What she wanted simply was this, that something of interest should be added to her life.
And try as I might to revert to a lifetime of repression, I could no longer pretend that my life was complete... it was natural for people to desire pleasure, that denying oneself pleasure was not healthy
Even though they are not similar in age, in the eyes of their respective societies, their age puts them beyond their aspirations: Jane Juska might be seen to be too old for a sex life, Margaret Mackenzie too old (or very nearly) to expect a love match and actually should think herself lucky that anyone is offering to marry her at all.
Time and again Miss Mackenzie makes the more unorthodox choice – she moves alone to an unknown town rather than live with relatives and she rejects not one but four offers of marriage. But in spite of leading such a sheltered life, she is perceptive enough to realise that none of these men are really able to separate how they feel about her from how they feel about the money.
Similarly, Jane Juska makes an unorthodox choice when she places the advertisement and on her journey also encounters a succession of men who are largely incapable of separating the woman from the sex.
But ultimately of course they do both find what they’re looking for – Jane Juska does indeed have a lot of sex – often even with men she likes. Miss Mackenzie finds, if not love, then certainly the potential for companionship and tenderness. Encouragingly, they both find men who are able to see beyond the irresistible allure of money and sex, and value the woman.
© Sue Powell
Selected works of Anthony Trollope
The Barsetshire series:
The Small House at Allington
The Last Chronicle of Barset
The Palliser series:
Can You Forgive Her?
The Eustace Diamonds
The Prime Minister
The Duke’s Children
The Belton Estate
He Knew He Was Right
The Way We Live Now