The next book in my mission to read the long-forgotten titles on my bookshelves is this one, which I picked up a few months ago in Persephone Books in London. I was intrigued it because I had previously thought that Frances Hodgson Burnett had only written for children, and I found that her novel The Making of a Marchioness was sweet and enjoyable like her other more famous works such as The Secret Garden.
Emily Fox-Seton is in her thirties, lives in a boarding house in London, and makes her living running errands for women of much greater means than her own. It is when one of those women invites her to stay with her in her country manor house, that Emily’s fortunes are turned around. Although she is only there to run errands for her host as she entertains other equally wealthy guests, Emily catches the eye of the marquis James Walderhurst. He choses her over the other younger and wealthier ladies and the two marry. The second half of the book, originally published as a sequel, sees Emily, now Walderhurst, fight off schemes from James’s heir presumptive, who is concerned that the old Marquis’s new marriage may rob him of the wealth he is set to inherit.
Emily is an innocent and naive young woman. She is thankful for any and every kindness shown to her, and is oblivious to the fact that they may not be kindness. She exclaims that people are very good, because she has nothing to give but is always receiving, without realising that she is always giving to those around her, whether in the form of running errands for them, or giving them advice. Even though she is far from the smart and lively protagonists that we’re used to today, Emily is a genuinely good person who wants nothing more than to help those around her, and I enjoyed seeing her come into a life of comfort and wealth. I liked the brief commentaries on social class, particularly Emily’s concerns at the start of the novel that she would be forced to go to a workhouse in her old age. It makes her root for her, in contrast to the other ladies who are vying for the marquis’s hand in marriage, whose only concerns are that they will be spinsters, and not that they will live in poverty.
The two halves of the novel are very different in tone. The first half is similar to Austen, whilst the second half is darker in tone and also shows the perspectives of the Osborns, who are plotting to get rid of Emily. I enjoyed both of these, although at times the second half seemed too slow. In the first half, I enjoyed Emily’s character, for the reasons above. It is in this part of the novel more than the second that we see her pleasure in helping others. In the second half, I enjoyed the Osborns, and Emily’s maid Jane. However, there were issues with pacing and tension, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that Emily’s way of dealing with the threat is to simply remove herself from them and go into hiding. There were also issues with racial sensitivity as Hester and her maid Ameerah, who are from India, are described in ways that would likely not be published today.
However, I did like the ending of the novel, which showed a more romantic side to the Waderhurst marriage, whilst also showing Hodgson Burnett’s own cynicism of marriage. My copy included an afterword that highlighted the interesting way that the author chose to end the novel with a scene between the two women, rather than a romantic conclusion, which made me realise that the book was actually more interesting and complex than it might seem from the outside. I also found it interesting how despite marrying well, the entire second half of the novel takes place without Emily having the support of her husband, who is travelling on business. It means that throughout the entire novel, we are faced with Emily’s independence, even if she is naive, and we see that just as she has helped other women in her way, other women flock to support her in exchange.
Overall, I liked The Making of a Marchioness for the way that it took a simple romantic plot and turned it on its head. This is not a flowery fairy-tale romance like other period dramas, James and Emily do not fall in love instantly, but marry for other reasons like companionship and security, and instead grow to love each other. Emily is definitely a woman of her time – the novel having been published in 1901 – but I enjoyed seeing her relationships to others around her.