Yesterday I was able to finish The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett mostly in one day (started with a few pages on Monday). It was not entirely the book I was expecting, but nevertheless, delightful to make reading top priority for a day and to engage with a whole book all at once. At one point my husband and I went to a coffee shop just to get out of our apartment (we both had the day off) and then sat there at one table, two books up to our faces, two people silently reading together.
As to the story. It’s billed as a type of realistic romance, which it is, but there ends up being more than just that. I really love the cover of the Persephone Classics edition, pictured here. The painting is a perfect portrayal of ‘poor Emily Fox-Seton’ who ends up becoming very rich indeed. She is very sweet and simple, not quite a Forest Gump character, but definitely on her way in that direction. Despite the fact that you can’t help liking her (especially because Hodgson Burnett often refers to her as being a larger woman with big feet and still beautiful), I did wonder, is she being portrayed as the ‘angel in the house’ Victorian stereotype, that women are supposed to remain childlike and completely innocent and naive and unselfish and oh so cheerful and constantly working for others their whole lives??? At first it did seem that way. Her Marquis of a husband states that he chose her over much prettier younger girls because he’s selfish and she’s completely unselfish and won’t interfere with him. Maybe this is realistic for the time (and even for the present day?), but it’s certainly not doing women any favours to be seemingly encouraged to be idealized child-wives.
The book was originally written in two parts and published in magazines separately. The first half, Emily’s Cinderella story, is more often than not, the only part referred to when the ‘realistic romance’ is mentioned. The second part continues the story with Emily’s wedding and early married days. At first it seems to remain just a normal sweet little English story, but gradually it ventures into some very unexpected ground, that seems much more like a Victorian sensation novel! It reminded me of a cross between The Moonstone (nefarious meddling Indians out to steal something rightly British!) and The Turn of the Screw (Emily can’t believe anyone would try to harm her, but why do all these near-accidents keep happening? Can it really be true?) For a while it becomes almost eerie, Emily seems trapped in this beautiful English country house, pregnant, with her husband gone off on a business jaunt to India, while the people who would have inherited her husband’s estate if he hadn’t gotten married or if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, come back from India and scheme to get the inheritance anyhow…
Hodgson Burnett wanted to write the second half about undramatic people being involved in melodramatic situations, just as the first half had been about unromantic people in a romance, but past all the strange ‘scary people from India come to steal the inheritance’ plot, the drama and danger of the second half of the book provide Emily and her husband a chance to grow and mature and ultimately understand each other better. The ending brings balance to their relationship and some needed realism and depth to the character of Emily, as she begins to grow up and realize that not everyone is kind and good. The people who know her also see that they can’t endlessly take advantage of her kindness and simplicity. That was a better resolution for me, there are still people today who are what a self-help book would call ‘people pleasers’ like Emily who will happily do a lot for people, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have needs of their own, including the need to be seen as a more complete individual, not just a perfect servant of a little wife and mother. In this way, the story does have its own feminist overtones. Emily’s innocence is not ideal in the end, but simply the way she’s made the best of the society and time she lived in. She is flawed but still likable.
A few quotes:
She had not lived in a world where marriage was a thing of romance, and, for that matter, neither had Agatha… Even novels and plays were no longer fairy stories of entrancing young men and captivating young women who fell in love with each other in the first chapter and after increasingly picturesque incidents were married in the last one in the absolute surety of being blissfully happy for evermore. Neither Lady Agatha nor Emily had been brought up on this order of literature, nor in an atmosphere in which it was accepted without reservation.
Though she was not aware of the fact, her fears, her simplicity, and her timorous adoration of her husband had not allowed her to reason normally in the past. She had been too anxious and too much afraid.
There are a lot of nice descriptions in the book, of clothes and gardens and cozy rooms like this: “She was so thankful for the softness of her lavender-fragrant bed, and so delighted with the lovely freshness of her chintz-hung room.” To me it’s not quite the personal favourite The Secret Garden is, but it was nice to read another (less sentimental) book by the same author.
Now on to Mariana by Monica Dickens as Persephone Reading Week continues!