Friday, December 17, 2010

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Until I became a devoted Persephone reader, I had no idea that Burnett, like many children's writers, wrote tons of stuff for adults as well.  All I knew of her was that she'd written The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, one of my childhood favorites.  Also Little Lord Fauntleroy, but I've never had any desire to read it -- I guess it's that image of the little boys with short pants and long curly hair.  I'm sure it was fashionable back then but now it just seems cruel.

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.


  1. Your review makes me want to read this one even more than I wanted to before. Just the idea that she wrote for adults is fascinating--and that it has a complex ending makes it all the better.

    I love Secret Garden so much--and very much enjoyed LLF when I was a child.

  2. "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."

    Sounds pretty much perfect! This one is also very high up on my list of coveted Persephones - fortunately, I strongly suspect I'm getting it for Christmas :D

  3. Hm, I'm thinking this is not an Amanda book, eh?

  4. Lifetime Reader -- I think I'll have to give LLF a try. I need to reread Secret Garden also -- I preferred A Little Princess as a child but it might strike me differently as an adult.

    Nymeth -- I hope you do get it for Christmas! I had a long list of Persephones on my wish list, I hope there are some under my tree also.

    Amanda -- I know you liked The Woman in White, so I think you might like the second half which definitely reminded me of Wilkie Collins. The first half, maybe not so much.

  5. I've had this on my shelf for a while - it looks like it's time to dust it off because it sounds so interesting!

  6. I really like Frances Hodgson Burnett. You have to read The Head of the House of Coombe and its sequel Robin. So amazingly silly. :p

  7. I'm so curious about this one! I'm all set to download a free ebook version as soon as I get my Nook on Christmas Eve. lol

  8. This sounds wonderful! It's on the shelf and will be my next Persephone.

  9. Anbolyn -- it's an interesting combination -- half is a sweet romance and the other half is a bit woman-in-peril. But still a great read.

    Jenny -- I do want to read more of her books now. I hadn't heard of Head House of Coombe, must look for it.

    Eva -- I hope you like it! A Nook sounds like a dangerous way to add more books to the TBR list.

    JoAnn -- it's really good. I can see why it's such a popular Persephone.

  10. The Shuttle is a fantastic read! Completely gripping sensation read.

    I loved Little Lord Fauntleroy as a child, almost as much as The Secret Garden & A Little Princess.

  11. I have one of the making of a marchioness copyright 1901 can anyone tell me how long has this book been out. Daniel