The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
11 February, 2013
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy was one of my favourite books in childhood. How I yearned to be a little lost orphan boy with golden ringlets and an immense fortune. Not to be on all three levels.
I’m rather wary of revisiting childhood favourites because my reading pace has changed as much as my taste in fiction (i.e. I am no longer a child). But when I heard that Persephone Books have re-issued a couple of Burnett’s adult novels, I was very curious indeed.
I decided to start with The Making of a Marchioness purely because there was going to be a tv adaptation during Christmas. I prefer to read the book before seeing an adaptation only because I tend to be rather lazy afterwards and not bother. I didn’t really know anything about it, which was a good thing.
Emily Fox-Seton is a spinster of 30. Originally from aristocratic stock, her family have gone down in the world and now orphaned, she lives in a boarding house for ladies and runs errands for wealthy society patrons. She’s a keen, engaging woman, not too bright but always looking on the bright side of things. It is because of her efficiency that Lady Maria Bayne has taken an interest and asked her to come up to her country seat to help with her house party. Amongst the guests is her nephew Lord Walderhurst, a middle-aged widower whom she is determined to matchmake with a suitably connected young lady. At the house party, Emily is in limbo, not fully a guest and yet not quite the help, but she quickly makes friends with the others and is a great help to Lady Mary who soon abuses her power over Emily. But it is because of this that Emily’s life suddenly takes an unexpected turn and she finds herself in a situation in which both marriage and love may be hers.
I don’t want to spoil anything as I want you to feel the surprises and hopes that welled up in me as I read this book. However, I will mention that Lord Walderhurst has a dodgy nephew, Captain Alec Osborne, who is married to an Anglo-Indian lady named Hester who is considered wild and eccentric with an even more sinister Indian ayah, Ameerah. It’s rather heavy on the colonial stereotypes which had me rolling my eyes on occasion.
I was also initially irritated by Burnett’s descriptions of Emily, how good she was, how grateful, how doe-eyed. It just went on and on and made me want to scream. However, as Emily’s circumstances change, so did the story and I began to like her a lot more. I think the novel was initally two books to begin with, The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, and then they lumped it into one. It certainly reads as two different stories, the first part being a drawing-room story and the second a sensation novel a la Wilkie Collins. Evil comes primarily from bad blood and drink which seems à la mode in stories from this era. I didn’t mind that so much except that it was pretty one dimensional. However, the latter half of the novel certainly made up for the first part and I read on breathlessly until the end, not knowing whether everything would turn out alright. Burnett certainly knows how to crank up the tension. And it dealt with issues much darker than I expected too. There’s domestic violence and poverty contrasting sharply with the rose-tinted lives of the richest strata of society.
I enjoyed this book immensely, especially as I read it straight after Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding which was a bit of a disappointment. And I’m going to search out Burnett’s other book, The Shuttle, which, rumour has it, is even more brilliant.
However, I wouldn’t bother with the tv adaptation, Making of a Lady, which mutilated the story and turned it into something completely different. It’s ok if you don’t mind that sort of thing but there was a lot more emphasis on sex, madness and murder which wasn’t there in the book.