The Making of a Marchioness (or is there a heroine dumber than Emily Fox-Seton?)

When I was 12, already entangled in all the Annes (green gables, avonlea, windy willows – and my favourite of all – the island…) and the Emily’s (of the new moon, the quest and the climb); I encountered another Emily.

My school librarian, (the wife of our principal, both of whom looked like they had tumbled out of a genial Blyton-esque boarding school, complete with rosy cheeks from sturdy perambulations across windy moors…) introduced me. Her thoughts being, if I liked heroines called Emily, then I would probably like Emily Fox-Seton of the Making of a Marchioness ilk.

(This was also her reasoning behind recommending the Emily Eyefinger series – which I had nightmares about for weeks — so as theory – maybe it’s not all that sound…seriously – the girl has AN EYE on her FINGER – what in the world could make that ok and not traumatic to a 12yr old?)

My memory of my first reading is vague and a little blurry: something something Emily – something something marries a marquis. I do remember I thought it rather delightful, with deliciously described people and clothes. Apparently I only remembered part one.

The Making of a Marchioness, was originally a novella (apparently taking Burnett two weeks to write in 1901). About a year later, at the behest of her publisher, she started on Part II, (The Methods of Lady Walderhurst). It’s almost three times as long, and the only thing it has in common with the first part, is it still contains Emily, Lord Walderhurst and a couple of characters from the first part. The two books were later combined into one and just called Emily Fox-Seton, and now they are both mostly just called The Making of a Marchioness. (TMOM)

I have to say though, reading the whole thing again, whilst not being 12 and fretting about whether I had been given cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch (ew…) was an entirely new experience.

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Emily is a poor, albeit well connected individual. Despite being the relative of an Earl, she lives in a bed-sitting-room, eking out her existence week by week; making over her dresses constantly to keep up with the fashions and being at the beck and call of all and sundry, in  order to make a penny and feed herself.

But Emily is not bitter about this. Oh no, she is cheerful and obliging, with a ready smile and a built in work ethic that makes vacuum-bots look lazy . No job is too dreary, not task is too demeaning, no degree is too enth – Emily is happy to do them all.

Frankly, if I didn’t like Emily so much, I would find her a dead bore. A ridiculous caricature of a human. If my 12yr old self had met Emily in the playground? I probably would have pulled her hair and stole her lunch money…

Frances Hodgson Burnett, in creating Emily, has made a truly composite creature. A pastiche of Poor Cinderella, with the feet of an Ugly Stepsister, the fresh faced practicality of a Jenny, combined with the optimistic and naive insanity of a Pollyanna – if you don’t embrace Emily’s childlike NICENESS and complete inability to have a backbone from the beginning, you probably won’t like much of the rest of the story.

It is a difficult thing to create a truly GOOD character. (The Russians were trying to do this a lot, especially during the late 1800s…with varying degrees of success.*) And although it primarily works in TMOM, I think for the most part, Emily is like the ultimate second banana that’s been given her own show.

In a contemporary sitcom, she would be the well-meaning best friend, the zany, but simple-minded sister, the one who watches someone else get the happily ever after. Instead, Burnett decided to make Emily the one with the HEA. I LOVE a good reversing of tropes, and this is like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Edwardian style.

Emily, by her very essential goodness, is destined triumph. She is shown to advantage by all GOOD things she does. She only ever thinks GOOD things about anyone else. She is constantly surprised when someone is grateful to her for all the seemingly unimportant things she does for others. She isn’t smart or intelligent, but can see and admire in others, when she recognises it.

Emily had an enormous respect for intellect, and frequently, it must be admitted, for the thing which passed for it. She was not exacting.

***

Part II is a bit of a different animal.

As Burnett explained, in the first story, ‘wildly romantic things happened to unromantic persons,’ so in the second of course, ‘wildly dramatic things will happen to undramatic people.’†

And she is exactly right. Emily, is COMPLETELY unromantic, she is pragmatic about her own future, and a husband or family never enters into it. She accepts her situation, lack of finances or support network gamely and without flinching, instead throwing herself into her small, society-plotted and decreed space with (sometimes a little too much) fervour.  But I do think there must still be a tiny part of Emily that held out for the happily-ever-after, and the Cinderella story, because even when it was within her grasp – she still marvelled in disbelief and complete gratitude.

‘There was something interesting in the innocent fineness of her feeling for Lord Walderhurst. In the midst of her bewildered awe and pleasure at the material splendours looming up in her horizon, her soul was filled with a tenderness as exquisite as the religion of a child. It was a combination of intense gratitude and the guileless passion of a hitherto wholly unawakened woman—a woman who had not hoped for love or allowed her thoughts to dwell upon it, and who therefore had no clear understanding of its full meaning.’

Part II tends to be the part that most people object to. Lord Walderhurst spends most of it absent (either ill or overseas), leaving Emily (in true Victorian Melodrama fashion) isolated in a large house, filled with sinister relatives and strange happenings.

The villains number three, in varying degrees of nastiness and irredeemability: Colonel Alec Osborne, Lord Walderhurst’s heir, his wife Hester, and her loyal servant Ameerah. The Colonel and his family desperately wants and needs money, peerage and all the privilege that comes with that. They will do anything to get it, and Alec, in particular, is coldly unflinching in his pursuit of this.

I won’t spoil any further – if you are willing to read that far, then you deserve the opportunity to see how it all plays out first hand.

It’s difficult to organise my thoughts around this book; on the one hand, Burnett’s attempt at writing for an adult audience is often dismissed and decried by the modern reader. It’s tone, content, ideals and style is judged by a contemporary society and found wanting. And whilst I understand that, (and agree with it up to a point), I do feel that that is limiting the novel’s scope too much.

TMOM is most definitely a book that was completely a product of the times:

  • There are liberally scattered racist references; (be warned)
  • The ideal women is one that is simple, undemanding, and worships at the alter of her husband’s wing-back throne, (but not too close mind you, because that would be clinging and tiresome!)
  • The idea of Hindu religion looks to be particularly occultic at this point, and without fail there is the Sinister Native Servant with glinting eyes and silent feet that appears everywhere. I do so love it when racial stereotypes also function as plot devices….(!)

Burnett was fascinated with India and an evidential result of the colonist/imperialistic environment at the time, but the novella, and its subsequent story, have a subtext that deserve greater scrutiny and less dismissal.

Burnett paints vivid character portraits. Fleshing out behaviours, thoughts, even convictions, deftly and with style.

‘She really was radiant to look upon in palest green chiffon. She had an exquisite little head, with soft hair piled with wondrous lightness upon it, and her long little neck swayed like the stem of a flower. She was lovely enough to arouse in the beholder’s mind the anticipation of her being silly, but she was not silly at all.’

***

‘When the news reached him, Alec Osborn went and shut himself up in his quarters and blasphemed until his face was purple and big drops of sweat ran down it. It was black bad luck—it was black bad luck, and it called for black curses. What the articles of furniture in the room in the bungalow heard was rather awful, but Captain Osborn did not feel that it did justice to the occasion.’

At the same time, she also accurately skewers both stereotypes and smugly held beliefs, often using Lady Maria as her mouthpiece.

“Walderhurst has been to me three times when I made sure that he would not escape without a new marchioness attached to him. I should think he would take one to put an end to the annoyance of dangling unplucked upon the bough. A man in his position, if he has character enough to choose, can prevent even his wife’s being a nuisance. He can give her a good house, hang the family diamonds on her, supply a decent elderly woman as a sort of lady-in-waiting and turn her into the paddock to kick up her heels within the limits of decorum. His own rooms can be sacred to him. He has his clubs and his personal interests. Husbands and wives annoy each other very little in these days. Married life has become comparatively decent.”

***

“Mrs. Ralph is the kind of woman who means business. She’ll corner Walderhurst and talk literature and roll her eyes at him until he hates her. These writing women, who are intensely pleased with themselves, if they have some good looks into the bargain, believe themselves capable of marrying any one. Mrs. Ralph has fine eyes and rolls them. Walderhurst won’t be ogled.’

Burnett also acknowledges the rampant fear most females had at the time: what would happen to well-born but poor women who couldn’t find a husband to take care of them? 

The dangers of being alone, single, and unprotected were something that should be taken seriously, although Burnett tended to take the more humorous route, even whilst portraying these very real concerns.

‘Now there is Agatha Slade, poor girl! She’s of a kind I know by heart. With birth and beauty, she is perfectly helpless. Her people are poor enough to be entitled to aid from the Charity Organisation, and they have had the indecency to present themselves with six daughters—six! All with delicate skins and delicate little noses and heavenly eyes. Most men can’t afford them, and they can’t afford most men. As soon as Agatha begins to go off a little, she will have to step aside, if she has not married…she and her mother are a little frightened….

Agatha will have to be sent to their place in Ireland, and to be sent to Castle Clare is almost like being sent to the Bastille. She’ll never get out alive. She’ll have to stay there and see herself grow thin instead of slim, and colourless instead of fair. Her little nose will grow sharp, and she will lose her hair by degrees.”

But ultimately, at its heart, TMOM is the story of two people in the same situation. Emily and Alec Osborn are both poor relations to aristocracy, with little or no chance of that ever changing. And one serves as a foil for the other.

Emily accepted her role. She acknowledges the futility of hoping that that would change, and wholeheartedly throws herself into doing anything she is asked graciously and without complaint. The result of that is what Burnett (and probably society at the time) thought was the ultimate reward: marriage to a peer, money, comfort and a happily-ever-after. And Alec? Well, his tale is more cautionary. He stands as an Aesop’s Reminder to Victorians and Edwardians everywhere, of what happens when the comforts of life and living are expected, rather than worked for and when bitterness and rivalry is allowed to take root. No Victorian Melodrama is without its just deserves, and Burnett rolls out retribution, salvation and sanctification with a red carpet flourish.

Is Emily Fox-Seton TSTL? Well, maybe a little – but she makes up for it by being exceedingly good natured, generous and kind. And in a book world of speschal snowflakes with magic powers, violet eyes and snark up the wazoo…? It’s actually a little bit refreshing.

So, if you feel like a re-read or a new-read then I would totally give it a go. Its clever and sly and a little bit funny. If you hate it, blame Juhi @ Nooks and Crannies, and a conversation we had about a haul of books… (because when assigning blame, one must always start with a patsy…)

I leave you with this quote: (just because it’s AWESOME)

‘She herself could not have explained exactly how it was that, without being put through any particular process, she understood, before her call was half over, that Emily’s intention was to remain with Lady Maria Bayne and that Lady Maria’s intention was to keep her. The scene between the three was far too subtle to be of the least use upon the stage, but it was a good scene, nevertheless. Its expression was chiefly, perhaps, a matter of inclusion and exclusion, and may also have been largely telepathic; but after it was over, Lady Maria chuckled several times softly to herself, like an elderly bird of much humour, and Lady Malfry went home feeling exceedingly cross…’

Sincerely,

Valancy: doodling Emily ♥’s Lord Walderhurst all over her journal.

🙂

* A most INTRIGUING and informational book: Finding the Middle Ground: Krestovskii, Tur, and the Power of Ambivalence in Nineteenth-Century Russian Women’s Prose by Jehanne Gheith – in particular a section entitled Krestovskii and the Woman Question…’a complicated interrogation of woman’s works and their position within society’ (ARGH – so many books, so little time!)

†PS: if you ever come across it: In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett by Angelica Shirley Carpenter, is the most FASCINATING read…totally worth the trawling through thrift stores for…

Header Image: “The Weaker Sex: The young man imagines himself the latest victim of some fair entomologist”, Charles Dana Gibson, 1903

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7 thoughts on “The Making of a Marchioness (or is there a heroine dumber than Emily Fox-Seton?)

  1. Oh, I’m really glad you re-read this and reviewed it. The contextualization is quite helpful. I do hope you’ll re-read the sequel too and post about that as well!

    I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how I respond to this book!

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    1. You’re absolutely right about contextualisation. I have a little bit of a soap box rant about that actually – and I get really cranky when books, (particularly of the victorian/edwardian era) are dismissed or criticised about how they refer to particular social issues, when knowledge, travel, understanding and acknowledgement was so inhibited and/or limited at the time.
      I don’t think they can be judged or held to the same standard, as, say a contemporary novel that does the same thing —— those I have NO patience or understanding for.
      I am probably a bit too lenient when it comes to that, but there are always gems within that are too good to be missed out on! Others may feel differently of course – and rightly so – but I am oh-so white, middle-class and australian…so I don’t have the same perspective – I can only go on what my world view is…and how its been moulded… I would be interested in your thoughts on that…!?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I absolutely agree with you about looking at the world through my own two eyes. I mean, how else am I supposed to look at the world?

        Also agree about the books being a product of their times, and everything about contextualization. In fact I don’t think there’s ANYTHING wrong with appreciating a work as the product of its times.

        I guess the danger comes from forming our worldview through the eyes of that one book (or one perspective) only. Which might make us all lopsided! 😀 I guess I’m thinking that every age has its nuances, and so it might be helpful to also seek out stories/artifacts/narratives that illuminates and brings to light a new facet of that same “issue.”

        Or that’s what came to me as I started writing anyway! Hope it made some sense! 😛

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  2. I wanted to edit my previous comment to say that while it’s not necessary to “seek out” other perspectives, it is definitely helpful to know that how we view the world (whether this current one, or the ones in which these stories are set) is just one way of looking at it. . . I think being AWARE of the singularity of our perspectives is helpful too. . . don’t you think? (And I think I might have strayed some way away from the discussion of this book! :P)

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    1. lol – I always think the best discussions start with books and then follow their own organic path which can end up anywhere! That’s what’s so lovely about them!
      I am in complete agreement. I suppose that is why I find books so fascinating – because no matter how well it is written, how nuanced and well-rounded, or influenced by other people, perspectives, or even other authors, it is an encapsulated narrative of a single person’s own world view from that exact moment. And they put it out there – for other people to read, criticise and ponder over. That is BRAVE. Especially, as you say, our perspectives are always going to be a little lopsided, depending on our environs, up bringing, background and partiality…
      But then if we never had brave people, we would never have such access to other people’s concept of the same types of issues…!
      A little bit of a causality dilemma really, but helps me when I come home with yet another haul of books and I get the ‘do you really have space for yet more books?’ eyebrow… I can casually sweep past and saying ‘it’s all adding to a more rounded world-view (!) lol 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t shake the image of a 12yo stealing Darling Emily’s lunch money. I’m sure she still would have thought the best of you anyway. As a 12yo I read (of course) the Little Princess. Maybe I should reread it trying to recontextualize the whole story. Rereading your childhood’s favorite is a risky business every time.

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    1. lol – she totally would have! …And then made sandwiches for me the next day…so I wouldn’t have to keep stealing other peoples. 🙂
      I was a Secret Garden reader…I was a little bit of a brat and was totally in awe of Mary’s (and Colin’s) tantrum throwing abilities.

      But I completely agree – re-reading childhood books is dangerous – there was an article by Hephzibah Anderson that has stayed with me, who said we find previous versions of ourselves in those sorts of books – they ‘carry us back to a time and place, and remind us of the kind of person that we were then…’
      A bit chancy for the risk averse…but the possibility of unearthing some new perspectives on stories I loved or hated? Pretty intriguing to say the least!

      Liked by 1 person

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