Hands up if you thought Frances Hodgson-Burnett only wrote for children? I know I did until I came across this book recently. Growing up I loved “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden” only a little less than I loved the film versions! But despite that I gave little thought to their author, and certainly assumed that she just wrote for children. What I have come to realise recently, however, is that books like “The Secret Garden” were just a side-line to her real career as an adult author- in fact, in her own lifetime it was “The Making of a Marchioness” that she was most famous for. So when I saw her name amongst the usual bunch of classic authors I was curious and when I found out that the company that publishes her (Persephone Classics) specialises in ‘Forgotten Twentieth Century authors- mostly women’ I actually got a little bit excited. You’ll have to allow me this little nerd moment, you see I have a real soft spot of ‘forgotten authors- mostly women’. My main focus at University was Eighteenth Century women’s writing. I love it, it’s why I started this blog, and to find out that it wasn’t just my little class of four students who appreciated the importance of women’s contribution to writing…well let’s just say I may have made a noise more commonly associated with the fans of Harry Styles!
Anyway, to pretty much sum up the way to get me to buy a book all you have to do is tell me it’s by an underappreciated female author and before you’ve even finished speaking I will have probably bought the book. This has sometimes proved to be a problematic mode of operation, I’ll let you into a little secret…sometimes authors, even female ones, are underappreciated for a reason!
Luckily, this is not the case with “The Making of A Marchioness”. This is a very interesting book which is nice considering I didn’t have any expectations going in, except that the concept seemed interesting. It’s split in two with Part One focusing on how the heroine, Emily Fox-Seton, gets married and Part Two dealing with what happens afterwards. Hodgson Burnett terms it beautifully I think “in the first story wildly romantic things happened to unromantic persons, in the second wildly melodramatic things will happen to undramatic persons”.
You may remember that I love books that deal with what happens after an event. It’s what I loved about “Homecoming” and it’s what I like about this book. Part One is almost Cinderella-like in its depiction of Emily’s rags to riches story with Part Two continuing her story post-marriage. Emily is a woman whose fate is, as one character puts it, to be “perfectly well-born, and who is as penniless as a charwoman, and works like one.” Despite being forced to cling to the edges of society Emily is a perennially cheerful woman who has taught herself to expect nothing from life that to be able to buy a new dress every couple of years. In fact, the book opens with her lamenting a recent change in skirt fashions which means she is now hopelessly out of date. She is well connected but does not benefit from this and what I found unusual, and interesting is that she is a 34 year old. In the traditional romance that’s practically dead! Nevertheless what unfolds is, in this instance perhaps, more intriguing than a traditional romance and without giving too much away, the proposal scene is one of my favourite parts of the book. Hodgson-Burnett was also particularly fond of it
“I have never done anything better & more subtle…than that scene on the heath. Walderhurst is complete in his moments there. He expresses quite simply an ingenuous, no unamicable brutality- or rather unadornedness of phrase & statement entirely unconscious & unintentional of offence, which just this particular kind is capable of.”
Although Part One is probably the best part of the book, in terms of brilliant dialogue and content, it is Part Two that makes it palatable with the cynic in me. I enjoyed the melodrama in it but what I loved was the undercurrent of subtle, yet realistic, commentary in late Victorian marriage. If Part One’s purpose is to show how a woman was defined only by her ability to get married then Part Two is dedicated to showing how she is further condemned by who she has married. Emily’s happiness if given the perfect foil in Hester Osborne’s misery, whose only fault appears to have been finding herself married to the wrong man. Watching Emily blossom into a confident and self-assured woman whilst Hester moves ever closer to what Hodgson-Burnett terms ‘”her precipice” is, at times, painful.
Marghanita Laski called this Hodgson-Burnett’s best novel, it is, she says; “the level she intended it to be, that of the fairy story diluted with unromantic realism. But she could never have supposed its realism to be as harsh as we now perceive it to be.” which is uncannily accurate. Sometimes when I was reading this book I felt as though I was looking at late-Victorian society as I’ve never seen it before, thoroughly un-rose tinted and stripped of its Hollywood veneer. Surprising in a book which is, on the surface, so simply written, perhaps, but wholly appreciated. We think of our society as being looks-driven, and complain about how demeaning it is, but give me 2013 with all its career opportunities any day. If “The Making of A Marchioness” is anything to go by we don’t know anything about what it’s like to be judged on our looks, and have nothing but them to rely on. It’s like a dystopia book in reverse!
Ok, I could write about this book forever, but I’m going to restrain myself! Let me just finish by telling you I haven’t enjoyed anything as much for a very long time and I demand that you read it, now. In fact, why are you still here…you should go and buy it here! Seriously though, it’s a gem of a book -so easy to read, even a little repetitive, but thought provoking at the same time, what more could you want? And if you’ve never enjoyed Victorian literature before now, give this one a try it’s a perfect introduction.
Have you read Frances Hodgson-Burnett before?
Were you as surprised as I was to find out she wrote adult fiction?