Emily Fox-Seton is the thirty-four year old protagonist of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, The Making of a Marchioness. She is single, good-natured and hard-working and now that her mother is dead and the few relatives she has left have no intention of being burdened by her penniless state, she is making her own way in the world.
‘She was such a simple normal-minded creature that it took but little to brighten the aspect of life for her, and to cause her to break into her good-natured childlike smile. A little kindness from any one, a little pleasure, or a little comfort, made her glow with nice-tempered enjoyment.’
As one of the ‘genteel poor,’ Emily has connections to some wealthy people who sometimes provide her with work in return for a modest remuneration but she faced an unknown future and expected to remain unmarried.
‘No one knows what the Future is to poor women. One knows that one must get older – and one may not keep well, and if one could not be active and in good spirits – if one could not run about on errands – and things fell off – what could one do?’
One of her patrons, Lady Maria, asks her come to entertain guests and be general dog’s body at her country residence for a short period and Emily is delighted with the idea. While there she meets Lady Maria’s cousin, the Marquis of Walderhurst, a widower in his early fifties, and a rich, unsentimental man of the world. Lady Maria said that it amused her to see women flocking around him, trying to attract his attention, thinking he might marry one them, while he ignores them all.
Lady Maria is a selfish old woman. She likes Emily but has her running around doing all sorts of errands without much thought for her workload or comfort. Walderhurst notices the amount of work being required of her and when another guest remarks on Emily’s good nature and the way she accepts her fate without resentment, he asks,
‘What is her fate?’
The answer: ‘It is her fate to be a woman who is perfectly well born, and who is as penniless as a charwoman, and works like one. She is at the beck and call of any one who will give her an odd job to earn a meal with.’
His response to this information was,
‘Good skin…Good hair. Quite a lot,’ and ‘Looks quite decent.’
A man of few words, but when he hears later that Emily has walked some distance in the heat to purchase some fish for the evening meal at Lady Maria’s request, he is appalled and takes his carriage out to meet her.
There follows an interesting little scene in which he asks the equally unsentimental Emily to marry him. Of course, everyone is shocked, but mostly pleased, by this turn of events.
The book is divided into two parts and the first is a fairytale/Cinderella type of romance while the second part is quite different and has some sinister undertones.
When Walderhurst makes Emily his wife, the man who would have been his heir, Captain Osborn, is furious. Osborn, a brutish, self-indulgent man, is stationed in India and marries there. Hester, his wife, is from a poor and barely reputable family and nurses dreams of the wealth they would inherit upon Walderhurst’s demise.
Now that these dreams are thwarted, a plan is made to return to England in the hope that Walderhurst will take pity upon them and possibly provide for them.
But Walderhurst is no fool and so Osborn and Hester change tactics to take advantage of Emily’s innocence and good will. When Walderhurst goes out of the country for work, Emily becomes their target and her husband is unaware of the danger she is in.
Francis Hodgson Burnett’s reputation as a writer has been built mostly on her children’s books: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. The Making of a Marchioness, although a favourite years ago, was overshadowed by her best-selling children’s books and is now published in a lovely Persephone edition.
The second part of the book is more suitable for older readers (I’d recommend it for around age 15 years and over) as Osborn’s behaviour to his wife is obnoxious and violence is alluded to. It also includes descriptions of a racist manner in regard to Hester and her ayah.
This is my entry for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: A Classic by a Woman &
Reading Classic Books Challenge (No. 9)