Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Is there a lifelong (female) reader who doesn’t love The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett? It’s one of my favorites and I’ve read it several times. Hodgson Burnett wrote for adults as well as children, and Persephone Books has published two of her titles. I just finished The Making of a Marchioness, originally published in 1901, and republished by Persephone in 2001.

Persephone’s version of this book is actually two novels in one: the first book, The Making of a Marchioness, followed by its sequel, The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. The first volume is a Cinderella-type story of Emily Fox-Seton, impoverished gentlewoman, who ekes out a living running errands for her wealthy acquaintances. While Hodgson Burnett occasionally provides glimpses of the dark side of Emily’s tenuous existence, mostly she dwells on her unflagging good spirits and continued optimism in the face of impending spinsterhood. And like any good Cinderella story, Emily’s prince eventually emerges in the form of the Marquis of Walderhurst, a dull self-centered man who chooses to marry Emily because her practical nature appeals to him. Thus Emily lives happily ever after as the Marchioness of Walderhurst.

Or does she? The Methods of Lady Walderhurst could hardly be a more different book than its predecessor. Lord Walderhurst must travel to India to oversee his business interests. On her own at home, Emily is beset by the evil Alec Osborn, Walderhurst’s dissolute heir presumptive, who views Emily’s existence (and that of her potential offspring) as a direct threat to him. We move rapidly from a story so sweet that it hurts your teeth, to one so dark that it keeps you up at night. Is Osborn going to murder Emily? How involved in any potential plot is Osborn’s wife Hester, whom Emily befriends? And what exactly is going on with the Indian servant Ameerah?

Like most Persephone books, issues pertaining to feminism and class are just under the surface of these stories. Why must Emily be so accommodating all the time? Because it is her nature, or her only guarantee of survival? How does Hester’s Anglo-Indian heritage make her an ambiguous figure? Is Walderhurst's remoteness a feature of his personality or his culture? Persephone titles like this one make me think a lot. Maybe that's why they take me so long to read.

(Book 53, 2010)


Amused said...

Oh i've never heard of this book but it does sound like one I'd really like!

Anonymous said...

I never thought to check if this author had written anything else. Now I am definitely going to check her out a bit more. Thanks!


I've only read the first part. Now I realize the second half may be the better half. Did you read "The Shuttle" ? That's my favorite of FHB's and I've read it a few times since Persephone published it.

Visell said...

I know only "The Secret Garden" (a movie and a book). I will try to find another book of this author in the library.

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