I also did not realize that although Burnett was English, she moved to the U.S. (to Tennessee, interestingly) when she was sixteen, after the death of her father. She was also quite poor at times and helped support herself and her family with her writing. She spent much of her adult life here as well, and eventually became a U. S. citizen. Burnett was married and divorced twice and had two sons, one of whom died young of TB.
Anyway, this one of Persephone's more popular books and one the ten classics readily available here in the U. S. -- I actually bought it right off the shelf in my local chain bookstore! I didn't even have to order it online. It's actually two stories in one volume about the same character, Emily Fox-Seton. The first story is the original Making of a Marchioness, and the second is basically a sequel.
So, it starts out with Emily, in her mid-thirties, living in London in genteel poverty. She's from a good family that have come down in the world, and of course she has no close family, so she is making ends meet by helping out as a sort of elevated domestic -- she runs errands for people, shops for them, writes letters, etc. She has been taken under the wing of an elderly rich lady Lady Maria, with a fancy country house. Lady Maria invites Emily out to her country house and asks for her help with her annual summer party -- basically, she gets Emily to do all the work for her without pay. It gets interesting, however, because the widowed Marquis of Walderhurst is also a guest, as well as two young unmarried debutantes on the prowl for husbands. The Marquis, though in his 50s, is quite the catch, and everyone expects to see him married off to one or the other of these women by the end of the season. But that would be too easy, wouldn't it? This is described as a charming Cinderella story, and apparently has been taught in colleges alongside Pride and Prejudice. The title alone should give the reader a hint of the outcome, so, hopefully, I haven't spoiled it for everyone.
The first half is quite a nice little romance, but I found the second half of the book more surprising. It's much closer to a Victorian sensation novel, which I didn't expect at all! There's trouble in paradise after the heir apparent to the Marquise gets wind of the second marriage -- since Emily is fairly young and of childbearing age, his inheritance is in jeopardy. The heir is Captain Alec Osborn, and he is a real piece of work. A cad! A bounder! A ne'er-do-well! A slimeball! (Feel free to insert your own evil adjective here -- it's like book blogger Mad Libs). He's a slacker officer posted to India, and when he hears about Walderhurst's marriage, he hotfoots it back to England with his Anglo-Indian wife Hester, to see what they can do about it to protect their own interests.
And this is where the story really changes. Instead of a sweet romance, our heroine (whom the author herself referred to as rather stupid and a sheepdog!) is in trouble, though it takes a while for her to realize it. I really don't want to give the ending away, but even though Emily was unbelievably sweet and naive, I became fond of her and I was quite worried about how it would all end. And the ending really surprised me. (Not like aliens or vampires suddenly appearing would have surprised me, but nevertheless a surprise ending). This book starts out as a sweet, fairytale like romance and ends up as a pretty serious commentary on the state of Victorian marriages, which I did not expect. Apparently her own failed marriages strongly influenced her writing.
Another of Burnett's adult fiction books, The Shuttle, is also available through Persephone, I'm definitely interested in reading this and I may actually even read Little Lord Fauntleroy as well, just to see what it's like.