Mar 11, 2011

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1901 novel The Making of a Marchioness was originally published in two parts: the first tells the fairy tale-like story of how our heroine, Emily Fox-Seton, became the Marchioness of Walderhurst. The second, originally titled The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, is a down-to-earth portrayal of the realities of Victorian marriage, with a bit of a Victorian sensation vibe to it. The two parts work very well as a single novel, though there is a marked shift in tone when we move from the first to the second.

It’s actually the second part that makes The Making of a Marchioness go further than classic love stories stories like Pride and Prejudice, which despite all its wonderfulness stops at the hero and heroine getting together. But even in part one, there are hints that Frances Hodgson Burnett very deliberately set out to write a very different sort of romance. Unlike what happens in Austen, in Framley Parsonage, and in several other classics, we don’t have a heroine in precarious financial circumstances who happens to fall in love with a man who will be able to provide for her while remaining appropriately horrified at the thought of marrying for money. We also don’t have a heroine like Jane Eyre, who is fortunately able to secure her own financial independence before getting married, and thus overcomes the whole thorny issue.

What Emily Fox-Seton is, then, is a kind of heroine I’d never come across before. What Burnett does so well here is show how in a society that forces women into complete dependence, love and money were not at all easily to tell apart. In Emily Fox-Seton’s mind, gratitude at having her future secured transforms into love. This doesn’t make her a mercenary, nor does it make her feelings any less real. It’s just the inevitable result of the situation she finds herself in. And to some extent, Emily is quite aware of this. I loved this conversation she has with her friend Agatha, for example:
“You are not like me,” she explained further. “I have had to work so hard and contrive so closely that everything will be a pleasure to me. Just to know that I never need starve to death or go into the workhouse is such a relief that—”
“Oh!” exclaimed Lady Agatha, quickly and involuntarily laying a hand on hers, startled by the fact that she spoke as if referring to a wholly matter-of-fact possibility.
Emily smiled, realising her feeling.
“Perhaps I ought not to have said that. I forgot. But such things are possible when one is too old to work and has nothing to depend on. You could scarcely understand. When one is very poor one is frightened, because occasionally one cannot help thinking of it”
“But now—now! Oh! how different!” exclaimed Agatha, with heartfelt earnestness.
“Yes. Now I need never be afraid. It makes me so grateful to—Lord Walderhurst.”
I also like this passage because it exemplifies Emily’s sensible practicality so well. She’s the kind of heroine I can imagine some readers disliking, a little like Alex from E.M. Delafield’s Consequences (another Persephone heroine). We’re told from the start that Emily is “not a clever woman”, but this is not of course the same as saying she’s stupid. In fact, she knows a lot more than she gives herself credit for. But she’s good-natured and trusting and in many ways an embodiment of Victorian stereotypes of womanhood. This is something of which Burnett was very clearly aware; she even has other characters in the novel refer to Emily as “a mid-Victorian”. The reason why I loved her, though, was because nothing about the way she’s portrayed implies that her behaviour is essentially feminine. She is who she is: not ideally virtuous, but rather a complying person others tend to take advantage of.

As customary in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writing, The Making of a Marchioness is marked by the repeated exoticisation and othering of India and Indian people. But this particular story shows far more awareness of this than Burnett’s children’s books. I found the following bit of dialogue, where Emily and her maid Jane discuss their mutual suspicion of a guest’s Indian servant, both interesting and revealing. It put me in mind of what Jason was saying recently about how a book can simultaneously be racist and attempt to denounce racism:
“You must try to overcome it, Jane,” Lady Walderhurst said. “I'm afraid it’s because of her colour. I’ve felt a little silly and shy about her myself, but it isn’t nice of us. You ought to read ‘Uncle Tom's Cabin,’ and all about that poor religious Uncle Tom, and Legree, and Eliza crossing the river on the blocks of ice.”
“I have read it twice, your ladyship,” was Jane’s earnestly regretful response, “and most awful it is, and made me and mother cry beyond words. And I suppose it is the poor creature’s colour that’s against her, and I’m trying to be kind to her, but I must own that she makes me nervous. She asks me such a lot of questions in her queer way, and stares at me so quiet. She actually asked me quite sudden the other day if I loved the big Mem Sahib. I didn’t know what she could mean at first, but after a while I found out it was her Indian way of meaning your ladyship, and she didn’t intend disrespect, because she spoke of you most humble afterwards, and called his lordship the Heaven born.”
And this brings me of what I enjoy the most in Burnett’s books: it’s exactly exploring these cracks and contradictions in her writing; these forces pulling the story in opposite directions. In addition to the above example concerning race, we have, for example, Emily’s husband looking down on his kinsman Alex Osborn for his “vulgarity” and class ambition. And yet Emily’s story is itself an unapologetic rags-to-riches tale of social mobility. As I said when I reviewed A Little Princess last year, these contradictions reveal so much about the late Victorian/Edwardian period and the interaction between ideas, ideologies and ways of looking at the world that were happening then.

The Making of a Marchioness is a book with a lot of charm, but it’s also far darker than I’d imagined. As Isabel Raphael says in the introduction to the Persephone Classics edition, “it displays an ever-present awareness of the dark underside of women’s lives”. One of the themes part two deals with, for example, is domestic violence. I don’t want to give too much away, but I absolutely loved the ending. It doesn’t say much explicitly, but its implications are so chilling.

More interesting bits:
“It was so kind of her,” she used to say with heartfelt humbleness of spirit. “I never dreamed of her doing such a generous thing. I hadn’t a shadow of a claim upon her—not a shadow.”
It was her way to express her honest emotions with emphasis which italicised, as it were, her outpourings of pleasure or appreciation.
(I loved this one for the wonderful humour.)
She was a woman of good blood and of good education, as the education of such women goes. She had few relatives, and none of them had any intention of burdening themselves with her pennilessness. They were people of excellent family, but had quite enough to do to keep their sons in the army or navy and find husbands for their daughters. When Emily’s mother had died and her small annuity had died with her, none of them had wanted the care of a big raw-boned girl, and Emily had had the situation frankly explained to her. At eighteen she had begun to work as assistant teacher in a small school; the year following she had taken a place as nursery-governess; then she had been reading-companion to an unpleasant old woman in Northumberland.

She had not lived in a world where marriage was a thing of romance, and, for that matter, neither had Agatha. It was nice if a girl liked the man who married her, but if he was a well-behaved, agreeable person, of good means, it was natural that she would end by liking him sufficiently; and to be provided for comfortably or luxuriously for life, and not left upon one’s own hands or one’s parents’, was a thing to be thankful for in any case. It was such a relief to everybody to know that a girl was “settled,” and especially it was such a relief to the girl herself. 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 forevermore. 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.
They read it too: If You Can Read This, A Few of My Favourite Books, The Captive Reader, A Book a Week, My Porch, The Literary Stew, Books and Chocolate

(Yours?)

25 comments:

  1. I have only read the first part (in a different edition) and was underwhelmed after loving The Shuttle so completely; it sounds from your review as if I should add the Persephone edition to my collection and read the second part.

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  2. Nymeth, you captured so well what I loved about this novel - the schizophrenic position of women in late Victorian times. They were gentle, they were "emotional," they were soft and sweet, and they were also expected to make deals with the devil, selling their bodies and minds in return for their daily bread in what were often ugly, abusive marriages. You don't mention Lady Maria, and she was one of my favorite characters, her impressive control over her own life contrasting vividly with Emily's compliant dependency, and her selfishness contrasting with Emily's selflessness - yet you don't really have the impression that Burnett disapproves of Lady Maria.

    You articulated the race question brilliantly! I love your reviews.

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  3. PS, have you read The Shuttle? I am passionately fond of it because it has both types of heroines - the assertive, intelligent, well-educated "new woman," Bettina, and her helpless, sweet, dependent sister Rosalie. To me it's a tiny version of the time in which it was written, when it seemed like society couldn't decide which role women should fulfil. Even stranger is "The Head of the House of Coombe" and its sequel "Robin," where the heroine is constantly shifting between the two extremes.

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  4. I've been wanting to read this ever since I heard of it, it's likely to be my next Persephone. Your review has answered my questions I have about similarities with her other books. The dealing with the social issues and culture sound very interesting.

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  5. It's so interesting to think about all these different conceptions of marriage - I love all your examples. I don't think it's all that different from these days. There are so many complex reasons to get into a relationship!

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  6. I haven't read this book, but in the middle of reading your review, I stopped for a second and ordered a copy. I think the points you make about marriage between people at this time are very interesting, and the bit about prejudice, both racial and class has me interested as well. I am also quite intrigued by the chilling ending that you mention. This was a wonderfully revealing review, and as usual, you did a wonderful job with it!

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  7. Well, I know what I will be reading next Persephone weekend!

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  8. This hadn't been one that stood out to me when I was looking at the catalog, but now I'm completely interested in it! I'm glad it's one I can probably find here in the States.

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  9. I'd never even heard of this book (though I have heard of Burnett and read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden) but I immediately want to read it - it sounds so fascinating! I must get into reading Persephones - they always sound amazing.

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  10. Being a man, I've had to consider what it must have been like to be a man getting married at the time - I'm not sure I would have done it. There's something immeasurably sad about it - people must of loved each other then, too, and yet, when you marry, you can never be really simply 'hitching up to the same wagon', as it were - it's lawys just an invitation to someone else to ride along. Even if you don't want ti to be. In some sense, this feels so inherently damaging to me - to take someone you love and make them indebted to you by no good action of your own - that I'd feel horrible getting married. It feels like somethign to be ashamed of, that you've put someone wonderful in a place where they are made to feel something very ugly, in its way. Transforming a lover into a lapdog.

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  11. So do you think Frances Hodgson Burnett was deliberately capturing the schizophrenic nature of the position of women in Victorian society, or is it something that just leaked through into her writing?

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  12. This didn't really capture my attention among the Persephones before but you make it sound like something I'd love to read, Ana. :)

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  13. This didn't really capture my attention among the Persephones before but you make it sound like something I'd love to read, Ana. :)

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  14. Excellent point about the attitude toward race. As I keep reading Persephones I am somewhat taken aback at the racism towards Jews, blacks, etc. I read this back in December and I found it quite surprising -- the tone of the two books was so different. I wonder if it was Burnett's reaction to her bad marriage.

    Here's a link to my review if you have time:

    http://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com/2010/12/making-of-marchioness-by-frances.html

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  15. This sounds fabulous - I hadn't even heard of it! My library system doesn't own any copies, so I will suggest we purchase this edition. I'll let you know how it goes!

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  16. I've been wanting to try some of Hodgson Burnett's fiction for adults for a while now. Last year at an Xmas book swap I attended, someone wound up with The Shuttle, which made me super jealous, so I promptly went and downloaded it on my ereader! I don't think this one is available in the public domain, but it does sound good enough to buy! ;)

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  17. This is one of the Persephone books on my list to read sooner rather than later because Frances Hodgson Burnett is the author. I have always associated her with children's books, not realizing she wrote books for adults as well and, so, I was thrilled to see this book on Persephone's list.

    And now your wonderful review has given me a greater reason to read The Making of a Marchioness than loving the author: a fascinating & intriguing story about a romance but also about women and marriage in Victorian society and morelso explains women and marriage in Victorian society.

    Thank you Nymeth!

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  18. Wonderful, examining review per usual, Ana! Reading classics can really be fascinating by what they wittingly or unwittingly reveal about the transitions in societal attitudes. I haven't read Burnett since reading her classic children's book when I myself was a child.

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  19. This sounds intriguing. I've only ever read The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, but your review makes me want to check out her other work!

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  20. Claire: Definitely do read this edition! I can easily imagine being disappointed to if I had only read part one.

    Mumsy: Aw, thank you so much. I should have mentioned Lady Maria! I completely agree that there was no disapproval in the way she was portrayed, and I loved that. I haven't read The Shuttle yet, but my library has the Persephone edition, so I will soon. It sounds so good!

    Charlie: It reallly is! I love that about her writing as a whole, even the seemingly simple children's stories.

    Jill: Very good point! At least we do have the possibility of financial independence in the West now, but that's of course not true of the whole world or even of all social groups.

    Zibilee: I so hope you'll enjoy it! And I'd love to hear your thoughts on the ending - it's such a raw acknowledgement of the reality of abuse relationships. Certainly unusual for its time!

    Vivienne: yay :D Enjoy!

    Rebecca: I'm glad the classics editions are at least easy to find over there! Hope you'll enjoy this as much as I did.

    Meghan: I think you'd love this, and Persephones in general!

    Jason: I wonder if there are books that deal with that? Because certainly there must have been man at the time who felt exactly that way. It would be fascinating to read about - thought so sad, too :\

    Heidenkind: I very much suspect it was deliberate - there are hints of that all over the text.

    Claire: I hope you'll enjoy it when you get to it! :)

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  21. Karen: Thank you for your link! And there might be something in what you say about Burnett's own life - the introduction of this edition hints at that as well. I'd love to read a biography of hers some day. She sounds like she lead a fascinating life.

    Darla: I hope your library does get it!

    Steph: It actually is in the public doman! Here. It's just that the US edition has a different title for whatever reason.

    Amy: I kind of love how Persephone publishes excellent adult novels for authors better known for their children's work - Noel Streatfeild is another name that comes to mind. Thank you for your kind words! I hope you'll love the book as much as I did.

    Christy: Thank you! I find that absolutely fascinating as well.

    Emily: I had only read those two before this as well. But it seems that her work for adults is definitely worth checking out.

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  22. I want to thank the blogger very much not only for this post but also for his all previous efforts. ...

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  23. I just read this one and couldn't get through the second book at all. Emily was TOO perfect for me, but I was able to get through that until I got to the horrible racism present in the second book. I just couldn't take it. I felt like it was lip service to "Let's not be racist," while portraying all the Indian characters as horrible, demon-worshipping, spell-casting murderers. I was so offended I cannot even properly describe it. Especially the sentence, "White ones have no chance against black!" Ugh. I stopped right there.

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  24. Not sure if you are aware, but there it was just announced that the UK broadcaster ITV are making a 5 part series adaption. Can't wait :-)

    http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/tv/4503759/Joanna-Lumley-to-play-matriarch-is-TV-film-of-The-Making-Of-A-Marchioness.html

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  25. I had no idea! Very curious to see how it turns out. Thanks for letting me know!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.