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Books Read in 2014: THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Making of a Marchioness (includes The Methods of Lady Walderhurst) by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Audiobook narrated by Lucy Scott

classic-Marchioness-cover-431x600Book Blurb:
This two-part adult fairytale by the author of The Secret Garden combines a charming Cinderella story with an ironic look at class structure and the Edwardian marriage market in turn-of-the-century London.

Emily Fox-Seton is a simple but good-hearted woman struggling to make ends meet while attempting to maintain the dignity of someone distantly related to the aristocracy. The Marquis of Walderhurst is an awkward but eligible bachelor being comically pursued by a pageant of unmarried ladies. When the Marquis surprises everyone by giving his attentions to Emily, he makes himself a fairy prince in her eyes. But marrying her prince is not the end of Emily’s troubles, as the forces of envy are more cunning and dangerous than she yet understands. Will Emily’s innocence be her downfall after all?

My Review:

Story: 3.5 stars
Narrator: 4 stars

      Goodreads bookshelves: audiobook, books-read-in-2014, classic-british-lit, historical-romance, hist-19th-c-romantic-victorian
      Read from February 17 to 24, 2014

Yes, I’ll freely admit that, even though I had this book on my shelf for years, I didn’t make the decision to read (well, listen to) it until after watching The Making of a Lady on PBS a few weeks ago (and I’ve pre-ordered the DVD!). While the “gothic” elements of the story seemed odd in the movie, I have to admit, they’re even odder in the book . . . because they’re given so much less malice and true menace first by how they’re written about (and in whose POV) and by how the circumstances are handled.

Emily Fox-Seton is a genteel woman of little means who hires herself out as an event planner, secretary, and personal shopper to women in high society London in early 1900/1901. At thirty-four years old, she has been on her own for quite some time and she has learned how to make a shilling stretch as far as possible. She lives in a rented room in a boarding house owned and run by Mrs. Cupp and her daughter, Jane, whose kindness she appreciates and who are quite fond of her in return.

One of Emily’s employers, Lady Maria Bayne, who truly likes Emily (in addition to liking what Emily can do for her) invites Emily to come to a country house party—and to act as Lady Maria’s companion, which means she gets to participate in the social activities for the most part. There are several random other characters here, but the most important guest is Lady Maria’s cousin, the marquis James Walderhurst. Lady Maria lets Emily know that Lord Walderhurst (who is in his mid-50s) lost his first wife and son many, many years ago; and if he wants an heir to inherit his title/estates, he must remarry and have another son. Emily sees her role at the house party to make sure the other few young women there—a wealthy American girl and the poor Lady Agatha—are seen to their greatest advantage. At every opportunity, she speaks well of each of the other young women to Walderhurst.

On a day when Walderhurst and all of the other guests have gone out for a drive/site seeing, Lady Maria discovers that the fish monger who was supposed to supply them for dinner didn’t have anything. The next closest one is in another town four miles away. But all of the carriages (and I suppose all the riding horses, too???) are out, so Emily, even though she’s fatigued from the eventful day before, volunteers to walk the four miles to get fish for dinner. On this walk, Emily reads a letter delivered to her shortly before she left the estate and she discovers that the Cupps are selling their house and moving out to the country. What does she want them to do with all of her stuff? This, of course, comes as quite a blow to Emily. On her way back to the house, she breaks down and stops to have a good cry. When Walderhurst returns to the estate after the outing and learns about the errand Lady Maria sent Emily on, he immediately goes out with his phaeton to retrieve her. He finds Emily on the moors crying and, moved by . . . love (? he’s not an overly sentimental man) he proposes to her.

This is the end of Part 1, which was a novella originally published as The Making of a Marchioness. And it’s only about the first 20-25% of the book.

In Part 2, originally published as The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, Emily and Walderhurst marry. She meets his cousin, and heir, Alec Osborn and Alec’s half-Indian wife, Hester. Having believed for years that he would inherit the estates and wealth that go along with the Walderhurst title, Alec is none-too-happy that James has remarried. At first, he and Hester (who is pregnant) tell themselves that at her age, Emily is unlikely to give Walderhurst a son/heir. But then, of course, the inevitable happens. After Walderhurst traipses off to India on a diplomatic mission (unlike in the movie, he isn’t in the Army in the book), Emily discovers she, too, is with child. She invites the Osburns to live in a cottage on the estate, and that’s when things start getting all pseudo-gothicy.

Because we’re treated to Alec’s and Hester’s viewpoints in the story, we’re at no time unaware that he wishes Emily harm. While most of the potential danger is laid off at Ameerah’s feet (Hester’s former ayah, now maid), Alec seethes with malice and hatred toward Emily most of the time. Hester isn’t much better. She seems to hate Emily as much as Alec does . . . though when she realizes just how close to being off his rocker her husband is, she starts to realize how wrong it is to wish harm to another, much less to do harm to another.

In the movie version, Emily not only stays at Palstrey (one of Walderhurst’s country estates where they take up residence after leaving London), she drinks the drugged milk, even after commenting that she doesn’t trust the Osborns or Ameerah. In the book, Hester who has been treated better by Emily than by just about anyone else in her life, not only saves her from the drugging, but urges her to leave Palstrey to get away from Alec and Ameerah and what they might do to her. Emily does this and goes to London, first staying with Mrs. Cupp and Jane in the Cupps’ old house, and then, after telling her doctor everything, at his advice she moves back into the Walderhurst townhouse in Berkeley Square.

Walderhurst, whose return from India was delayed by his own fever, finally returns home to learn that not only has Emily had a child (she never told him in her letters, many of which went astray, and at least one of which was intercepted by Alec), but she is also on death’s door with doctors and nurses hovering over her.

In a scene worthy of any Disney movie or Jane Austen adaptation, Walderhurst kneels beside the bed calling to her—which brings her back from the “white sea” of death and back into the world of the living. Which is all very sweet and would have been a great way to end the story.

But then we’re treated to a “four years later” type of scene in which Hester, now widowed, and her daughter have been living with Emily and Walderhurst ever since Alec “accidentally” shot himself with a shotgun he didn’t know was loaded while he was drunk. So, instead of a romantic ending, we at least do learn that “justice” (or Just Desserts) has been served. But it was a rather lackluster ending.

The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst were published in 1901, the year Queen Victoria died. Several times in the book, Emily’s stature and demeanor are commented upon as being “early Victorian” and “Mid-Victorian” (and once also as a “Thacheryian saint”). It’s funny to me that, even less than a year after Queen Victoria’s death, levels of Victorian attitudes and behaviors had already been defined.

One major issue I had with the book is Burnett’s overuse of the word ingenuous. It’s apparently her favorite adjective/adverb. Everything about Emily is ingenuous and she does everything ingenuously. This is one of those things that is likely more noticeable in the audio version than the print version.

Where the script writers and filmmaker got it right was keeping the danger to Emily present, rather than removing her from it and having her hiding from the fear rather than living with it, as happens in the book. They also got (very, very) right the development of the relationship between Walderhurst and Emily. I loved the slow-burn between them in the film version. Here, there’s almost no emotional or intellectual connection between them, except for the fact that she moons over his letters when he’s gone, and he comes to have “tender” thoughts about her upon reading her letters while he’s convalescing. Though, in the end, his outburst that he would rather have Emily than the son she bore him, is very sweet. What the movie got wrong: Jane Cupp. Never in the book is Jane anything but completely loyal to Emily. It is Jane who saves Emily from disaster more than once, and it is she who loses sleep to watch over Emily when she realizes the threat to her mistress’s life.

It was quite interesting seeing the original depiction of these characters and the story as the author imagined it instead of just the 21st century adaptation’s take on them. Gothic romances were quite popular in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian era; but, unfortunately, this doesn’t work as one of those, even though it does have some of the elements. We also see clearly depicted the attitude of that era toward those of Indian birth/descent, though much of this is ameliorated by Emily’s attitude—and her suggestion that Jane read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (apparently Burnett’s favorite novel as a young girl) to understand the plight of “the blacks” (which, apparently, Indians were called in England at this time).

Had I not seen the movie and fallen so deeply in love with Emily and Walderhurst, I might not have stuck this one out. But I’m glad I did. It will never be a favorite, but I’m glad I read it.


My rating matrix:
5 STARS = one of the best I’ve ever read
4 STARS = a great read, highly recommended
3 STARS = it was okay/not a favorite
2 STARS = I didn’t enjoy it all that much, not recommended
1 STAR/DNF = I hated it and/or Did Not Finish it

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  1. What Are You Reading? (March 2014) |

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