Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: THE MAKING OF A MARCHIONESS, by Frances Hogdon Burnett

Original Publication Date: 1901

Genre: romance

Topics: marriage, inheritance, exotic lands

Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three cities

Burnett is primarily known for children's books, which means it's no wonder the main character in this book is devoid of any "flaws".  Emily Fox-Seton is a  single woman in her second youth, pure and respectable.  Working as a lady's assistant, she is content to live on her own, waiting to marry for love.  This lack of slyness on her part (for lack of a better word) is really what makes this book miss a wonderful opportunity to make a statement:  it's ok to be on your own, being able to work for a living and lead a self-contained life even if one is disowned by their family.  
We are not to see this - instead, Marchioness gives us an insight into the way of marriage procedures in Victorian age.  No marrying for love if one (woman) is beyond their first youth and with insufficient financial means - she would have to make do with any solution proposed.  If one is a man, however, every available girl with means will be paraded during a dinner occasion and careful sitting order in the table will ensure further arrangements...

Following a series of misunderstandings, Emily agrees to a marriage of convenience to a slightly elder, but polite and caring Lord James Vanderhurst, a widower who has to produce an heir if he is to maintain the family estate (even though I've read plenty of books on this, it still amazes me to see how inheritance rules were in Victorian time, so glad all this is over!)

Life in the countryside is fine for the couple, who enjoy each other's company in a peaceful and quiet manner.  It would most probably also fit with the "lived happily ever after" of the romantic novels of that era.  The author, however, tries her pen in a gothic experiment.  I really appreciate her courage to go beyond an easy solution and instead show a darker side to an otherwise uneventful story plot. James feels obliged to go back to India and leaves Emily alone in the vast house...

Enter Captain Alec Osborne and his Indian wife.  Alec is next in line to inherit the family estate and while he produces a letter from James asking him to look over Emily, something is not right.  We are slowly introduced to a series of little incidents that aim at hurting and eventually do away with Emily (who is pregnant).   While the idea is "refreshing", its execution is little more than bearable. Yes, we are at a period in time where women were meant to be submissive and sub-par in almost everything, but I'm not convinced.  Emily has taken care of herself in the real world for a fairly long time to be unaware of tricky situations around her.  I'm also not convinced by her inability to just show the door to her guests and seek support from the staff around her for protection.  

One other detail that bothered me was having to rely on exotic India for all the different concoctions to end Emily's pregnacy and life - surely these are known to everyone in the world? It gives the impression of a scapegoat - it was easier to keep unpleasant matters away from proper society and blame "outsiders" for all evil.  Still, I can't feel sorry for poor Emily fighting for her life... because it's all too convenient and short-lived.  A happy end completes the story and a pragmatic, yet loving and caring family life is restored. 

With my modern-day eyes, I see the slight failings of a story that otherwise has plenty of potential.  Still, I recognise the limitations of literature in that era - and for that I applaud Burnett for daring to stray from an all-too-sweet Cinderella story and introduce a dark element.  I would even go as far as say that the story highlights how adversity can lurke around even the most cynical, down-to-earth relationship and show the true feelings we have for each other...

(Both Project Gutenberg and Librivox have published this book, together with its sequel under the title "Emily Fox-Seton: Being the Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst")

 Download The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|