The Making of a Marchioness was a serendipitous library find that I grabbed because I taught The Secret Garden this term and I’ve never read any of Burnett’s work for adults. Curiosity killed the cat? Ros Clarke said on Twitter that she loved Part I but disliked the (much longer) Part II. As usual, #Rosisright.
This is pretty spoilery, I guess, but I’ll try not to give everything away. What grabbed me was the back of the book description: “Part I . . . is in the Cinderella (and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) tradition, while Part II . . . is an absorbing melodrama . . . [that] develops into a realistic commentary on late-Victorian marriage.” I got what I expected from Part I but found II a not-so-absorbing melodrama with not nearly enough about the marriage.
Emily Fox-Seton is an impoverished gentlewoman supporting herself by running errands and doing other little services for aristocratic ladies (finding servants, etc.). I loved the bits about how she contrives a ladylike wardrobe and home on her meager income. I always love this kind of thing in books, I don’t know why. One of her employers, Lady Maria Bayne, invites Emily down to her country seat to make herself useful, and there, at the end of Part I, Emily wins the hand and giant ruby ring of the Marquis of Walderhurst (not really a spoiler–spotted it miles away). This triumph is all the more satisfying because Emily, unlike other young ladies at the house party, is not angling for him, and because her life is so precarious.
What makes this part so fascinating is Emily’s character and the way the narrator treats her. Emily is so innocent and good that she doesn’t see how people exploit her. Serving others makes her happy. She’s not exactly stupid, but as the narrator says at one point, “her innocence was so fatuous that she thought because she had been kind to [some other characters] they could not hate or wish to injure her.” This exchange between her and Lord Walderhurst is wonderful:
“People are kind,” she said hesitatingly. “I–you see, I have nothing to give, and I always seem to be receiving.”
“What luck!” remarked his lordship, calmly gazing at her.
Later, her very selfish husband tells her that this was the moment he began to think he might like to marry her. He’s quite clever enough to recognize that a happily self-sacrificing wife is just the thing to make him happy. And the puzzle of whether such an unequal marriage could be happy, if both partners are fulfilling roles they like, kept me reading even when the second part palled on me.
I enjoyed the narrator’s attitude to the characters here–she’s sympathetic to them, especially Emily, but also keeps them at a critical distance and is perfectly willing to poke fun. (In this, she’s most like the worldly, ironical Lady Maria). This is something my students and I noted about The Secret Garden, which makes its narrative voice quite different from that of contemporary middle-grade fiction. The narrator tells us right off the bat that Mary Lennox is unattractive and unpleasant, rather than trying to make her “relatable” (or at least, it isn’t pleasant to relate to her). And throughout The Secret Garden, adults are laughing at the children behind their backs, inviting us to do the same. This is a very nineteenth-century narrative style, and sometimes I miss it in contemporary fiction, where it’s rare to find a narrator ironical about her characters.
Anyway, Part II. Not nearly enough about Emily and Walderhurst’s marriage. He spends a lot of it in India. Instead, we get some imperialist melodrama when Walderhurst’s heir presumptive, Alec Osborn, comes to England with his “Anglo-Indian” wife and her ayah, the sinister Ameerah, who is devoted to her mistress and has a propensity for evil magic. (In her preface to the Persphone edition, Isobel Raphael says that at this time “Anglo-Indian” meant someone mixed race, not just someone of British heritage born and living in India, which was the previous meaning. The OED suggests the shift happened a bit later, but Hester is also called a “half-breed” so I think Raphael is right).
The Osborns are not pleased to find a robust new Lady Walderhurst, who is likely to produce an heir to displace Alec even though she is an elderly 34. You can probably guess the rest. I found the plot against Emily not at all interesting or original, and wasn’t persuaded that seeing how ordinary, unromantic people like Emily and Walderhurst dealt with melodrama erupting in their lives was interesting or original either (this is what Gretchen Gerzina’s Afterword argues).
The characterization isn’t quite as racist as it could be, because Alec is the worst villain and Hester, his wife, is redeemed. But though Emily challenges her servants’ suspicion of the “black” Ameerah, the narrative pretty much proves them right. If I want a Victorian mystery with a side of imperialist racism, there are much better ones than this. I skimmed a lot in Part II.
I did like the way Walderhurst is won over by Emily’s unselfish, unexacting love, rather than tyrannizing over her. I just wanted to see more of how their marriage, and their characters, changed. We’re told it happens more than shown it.
I’m not sorry I read this, but I think I’ll stick with The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which have their own problematic passages about India and Indians, but where I find the melodrama more satisfying. You can always quit after Part I!