**spoiler alert** Where I got the book: purchased on Kindle. I’m only reviewing The Making of a Marchioness today—I hope to get round to The Shuttle l...more**spoiler alert** Where I got the book: purchased on Kindle. I’m only reviewing The Making of a Marchioness today—I hope to get round to The Shuttle later. ***SPOILER WARNING.***
Frances Hodgson Burnett is of course better known for her children’s books, particularly The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. I never thought of her as a writer for adults until a writer friend mentioned a blog post about her on Facebook (I can’t find the post, sorry) which talked about The Making of a Marchioness and sketched out the premise. I was immediately intrigued by the notion of a less-than-glamorous, older, impoverished heroine, so I grabbed this $0.99 (at the time of writing) edition on Kindle. All hail to Kindle for providing an easy way to get hold of old, out-of-print literature! This is quite a decent edition, except that they evidently OCR’d it from a print book which had illustrations and have left the reference to the illustrations in the text. This annoys me because now I want to see the illustrations. Which led to a We Wants It moment that resulted in a completely impulsive ebay purchase for my collection. I don’t know if I’ve told you guys that I collect early 20th century editions, which are more often than not of 19th century books, although nowadays I generally wait till I’m in England because I have favorite bookstores there.
Anyway, I’m finding FHB increasingly fascinating since she had an American and an English side to her, led a colorful life, was a celebrity in her day, and was a consummate businesswoman who knew how to turn her talents as a popular writer into a comfortable fortune. In many ways she’s a typical Victorian: she has a taste for the melodramatic and the sentimental, gets positively New Agey at times with touches of mysticism and spiritualism, and has a moralistic way of dividing her characters into good and rewarding them, and bad and giving them the Fate They Deserve.
Melodrama, sentimentality, mysticism and moral certainty are all present in The Making of a Marchioness, and how I loved them, except for the mysticism because I have never liked the Mysteries of the East strand in Victorian literature. [Side note: The Making of a Marchioness was published in 1901, which is bang on the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian, and was a late work of FHB’s but before A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.] I will have to read a biography of FHB to find out why she was so fascinated by India, because both The Secret Garden and A Little Princess have an Indian connection.
As a novel, The Making of a Marchioness has its flaws. It can be best described as a love story and thriller combo, or as a love story interrupted by a thriller plot. The two halves of the story don’t sit entirely well together—it’s as if FHB wrote the love story, but found it was too short and then wrote the thriller subplot without really bothering to link the two. So I’m going to treat the two stories separately.
The love story revolves around Emily Fox-Seton, an impoverished thirtysomething of good family who has been left, through no fault of her own, in that perilous financial position that was apparently quite familiar to Victorian ladies—parents dead and no MAN to keep her in proper ladylike style. If you were born into the upper social classes, you married or you starved, or ended your days in the workhouse which amounted to the same thing—you couldn’t possibly work in a shop or factory or become a maid for your living because it just wasn’t done. Emily is seriously worried about the prospect of ending her days starving or in the workhouse, but for the time being is able to eke out an existence by acting as a sort of assistant to a variety of ladies who’ve had better luck in the marriage stakes and need someone to run around hiring servants, finding shopping bargains and basically doing all the things a lady of quality would rather not be bothered with. The level of acidity that FHB directs at the snobbish women who get Emily to hunt for cheap stockings is very telling—FHB did not begin life rich, and undoubtedly suffered from English snobs until she was successful enough to be accepted.
By a tremendous stroke of luck, one of the ladies invites Emily to her summer house party in the country, which of course would have been expected to go on for weeks. Emily, being all things good—grateful, humble, appreciative, never jealous of other people’s good fortune—is delighted to be in the country during the summer, and has no problem with watching the younger, richer, and better-dressed ladies do their best to capture a MAN before they get too old/run out of money. The ladies are particularly keen on capturing the affections of the Marquis of Walderhurst, an older widower with pots of money and good breeding, and one of them seems to be getting very close to the prize. Emily does nothing but be her good self, encouraging the front-runner and just being generally a large, fresh-faced, lovely, well-behaved woman.
Can you guess what happens next? That scene’s adorable, and of course by this time the reader knows she should be cheering Emily along every step of the way.
FHB doesn’t stop at the Happily Ever After, but brings the reader along as Emily adjusts to being a Marchioness and wins her very English husband’s affection (rather than love—he marries her more because that will stop all the other women pursuing him, and because he likes her and finds her interesting). The Marquis goes off to India, and with the aid of the thriller subplot stays there, unknowing that Emily is in an Interesting Condition (it’s hilarious how FHB skips around all direct references to pregnancy). He comes back to find her at death’s door, realizes he loves her truly and . . . . Oh, read the book. It gets very sentimental at that point.
The subplot involves the Marquis’s cousin, who is the heir-presumptive in the event the Marquis dies without issue—which means, of course, that it’s in his best interest to ensure that Emily doesn’t breed. Aided by his wicked-because-Anglo-Indian-but-redeemable wife and a mystical Indian servant, he tries hard to throw a few spanners in the works, not shying away from attempts at Murder Most Foul, and comes to a Bad End at the hands of . . . . again, read the story. Both he and his wife start out good-looking but their looks disintegrate because the author is punishing them for being naughty characters, while Emily becomes increasingly beautiful. Moral certainty has its rules.
I totally recommend this book, mostly because along with the Victorian saccharine FHB injects some wonderfully pointed barbs into her text (she made me laugh on several occasions, particularly in the earlier part of the book—the house party—which was superb). She does the Victorian morality with a sort of dry half-mockery that points forward to the early 20th century, when female writers started to see a woman’s role in life very differently. We’re led to accept that Emily’s Happily Ever After has to proceed from captivating a MAN and his fortune, but there’s a clear line of questioning why such a development should be necessary to her happiness. FHB was evidently happy to work within the system (well, sort of; as I said, her life was colorful), but she didn’t like it. She lived to see the First World War and all the changes it brought about for society in general and women in particular, dying in 1922 when the struggle to give women equal rights and economic possibilities in both of her home countries was well advanced but far from finished. (less)
Where I got the book: my local library. A book club read. WARNING: A BIT SPOILERISH.
This novel kept me on my toes, and therefore interested. It starte...moreWhere I got the book: my local library. A book club read. WARNING: A BIT SPOILERISH.
This novel kept me on my toes, and therefore interested. It started out with a fairly familiar trope, where the main character is recovering from an accident and can’t remember her life before, but as time goes on she realizes that people are keeping something from her. And then she begins to find letters hidden around her house, and realizes she had a lover—now who WAS that guy anyway?
So we began with a little mystery, and I kind of assumed that the story would center around Jennifer’s attempts to find out about her past. And then things got a little more interesting as we learned Jennifer’s husband was making his fortune by mining that new wonder material, asbestos.
Oh-oh. Nothing like a little historical hindsight to make the informed reader prick up her ears (although, I wonder, what of the generation that never had to worry about asbestos removal?) So OK, this novel was going to have a certain historical dimension, and being set in the early 60s it had that whole Mad Men double standard going—wives were expected to be decorative, good at housekeeping, eager to produce children and, above all, faithful, while men—well, if a man was playing the field, it was his wife’s fault for not keeping him interested. And everyone got to consume as much booze, smoke as many ciggies and pop as many pills as they liked, because there was nothing wrong with needing a little something to keep you going.
But then, before I was expected it to happen, we got into Jennifer’s Great Love Story, which was beautiful and tragic and poignant and all that. Only I began to feel like the author was making excuses for Jennifer—yes, her husband was a bore and a boor, but he hadn’t technically done anything wrong and her Great Love began to seem like the indulgence of a spoiled brat rather than a realistic relationship.
And then all of a sudden we jumped into the new millenium and INTO PRESENT TENSE and I was annoyed, because I was happy in Mad Men Land and wanted to hear more about the asbestos. You don’t get to mention asbestos without the reader expecting something nasty to happen. But there’s no asbestos in 2003, and who was this Ellie woman, mooning after the Man Who Very Obviously Will Not Leave His Wife instead of getting on and doing her job? I began to worry if this was going to be a novel about women whose entire object in life was to have affairs.
And then the story made a couple of abrupt right turns and came up with one major twist I really hadn’t anticipated, and a couple of minor ones, and by that point I was ready to give it five stars. I would knock off half a point for some poor grammar and expressions that didn’t belong to the Sixties if half points were allowed, but overall my final impression of this novel was of an entirely enjoyable read from the lighter end of the literary fiction pool. This is the kind of novel that goes down pretty quickly, so it’s not a bad choice to take to the beach or on a plane ride.
Although, now the glow of the last seventy or so pages has faded, I wish Moyes had made more of the asbestos thing, but that would have been a different type of novel. And I wish I’d been able to fall in love with the characters a bit more, but seriously it now seems to take about 2,000 pages for me to fall hard for a character, so YMMV if you’re less of a cynical old bat than I am. Anyway, five stars for being enjoyable and making me want to read it instead of doing something productive.(less)