Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope, adapted by Martyn Wade

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BBC Radio 4, 9-16 January 2011

This “neglected classic” (Radio 4’s description) turned out to me a morality-tale involving a middle-aged spinster Miss Mackenzie (Hattie Morahan) unexpectedly coming into a large fortune on her brother Walter’s death and being pursued by three suitors from varying social backgrounds: Samuel Rubb (Lloyd Thomas), a partner in her younger brother Tom’s firm of oil-cloth manufacturers; Jeremiah Maguire (Stephen Critchlow), a curate from the local parish where Miss Mackenzie resides; and John Ball (Philip Franks), Miss Mackenzie’s cousin. The story is a satire on money and greed, and how they corrupt individuals to such an extent that they are prepared to sacrifice anything – even their integrity. Eventually Miss Mackenzie finds that due to a legal technicality she no longer possesses any money; the three suitors continue to press their claims, but only one retains some sense of decency.


In Tracey Neale‘s production, narrated by Anthony Trollope (David Troughton), Miss Mackenzie came across as a serio-comic tale. Trollope himself assumed a direct presence in the story, not only encouraging listeners to empathize with his point of view, but commenting (frequently ironically) on his characters’ foibles. He was particularly scathing about Rubb’s social faux pas, such as wearing yellow gloves to visit Miss Mackenzie in the belief that they were somehow fashionable, as well as Maguire’s obsessive nature, which led him to wage a newspaper war against Sir John. While Trollope did not always agree with his heroine (on several occasions he bandied words with her, as he recommended her to act directly with her suitors, rather than stringing them along), he eventually accepted her decision to pursue a more diplomatic course of action. After all, she was a woman trying to survive in a patriarchal society, trying not to offend anyone. It was chiefly due to Sir John’s basic generosity of spirit that he offered her a secure life without any strings attached, much to Trollope’s delight. In the final sequence of the adaptation Trollope recounted with no small satisfaction the marriage between the two of them, and the decision by Sir John’s formidable mother (Margaret Tyzack) to quit the family home in the (mistaken) belief that her son has been ensnared by a gold-digger.


Neale made intelligent use of overlaid sound: as Miss Mackenzie reflected on the merits and demerits of her suitors, the sound of horses’ hooves could be heard in the background, suggesting transience – a sense of rootlessness, both mental and physical. Until she actually chose a husband, she would be doomed to lead this kind of life. On other occasions snatches of Brahms and Schubert could be heard, summing up the adaptation’s sense of melancholy, as Miss Mackenzie discovered to her horror that riches brought unhappiness, as well as financial security, as she was unjustifiably accused of several vices including hypocrisy, unfaithfulness and duplicity.


Neale proved beyond doubt that Miss Mackenzie’s neglect proved unjustified: the novel ranks with Trollope’s better-known works as a searching analysis of capitalism’s effect on the human psyche.