Friday, April 06, 2007

Burnett's The Making of A Marchioness

[ Just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: The Making of a Marchioness

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Copyright: 1901 (this work is in the public domain); I read the Persephone Books edition of the text, ISBN: 978-1-903155-14-1.

Length: 297 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: The Making of a Marchioness features Emily Fox-Seton, about whom I wrote in March here. The important thing to remember about Emily is that she is not clever; indeed a truly unkind soul might suggest that, for a woman of thirty-four, she's really not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She's somewhat unworldly, but very willing, very accommodating and very kind. Those of better birth and means, such as Lady Maria Bayne, depend on Emily to do for them those mundane boring tasks (writing notes, running errands, hiring of staff, etc.) that they don't choose to do for themselves. Consequently, Emily is invited to Lady Maria's country house, Mallowe Court, to manage the handling of her house party. Among the guests is the eligible Lord Walderhurst and three females (charming and otherwise) who spend time angling for his attention. There are two love stories that emerge in the first part of this novel and it is comforting to know that Frances Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough to bring both sets of lovers together without boring us with the obvious.

It is the second and longer segment of the novel, published originally as The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, that is somewhat more sensationalistic. Emily is placed in mortal danger and the question is whether her great love will return to her in time to ensure her safety and complete recovery. Burnett provides glimpses into two marriages (not the same two couples as presented in the first part of the book) and contrasts the spousal behaviors and attitudes.

I tend to characterize books like this as charming; you can trust the author's intent and narrative as completely as your own mother's cooking. There's a reassuring coziness to the novel. The modicum of suspense is just enough to make it interesting but it's a text ideal to read just before bedtime.

Also Relevant: The virtue of the Persephone edition is the inclusion of both a preface by Isabel Raphael and an Afterword by Burnett biographer Gretchen Gerzina. The bits of biography supplied indicate that Burnett wrote to support herself and her sons in the wake of two unhappy marriages. She was wildly popular as a storyteller in her lifetime, her works read by statesmen as well as the general public.

It's the very gentleness of the narrative that I find endearing, but the note on which the novel closes is actually quite harsh for the time period. Murder has been committed, but the nature of the crime is hidden until the final paragraphs. At the same time, during the second segment of the novel, the women we've come to know each move center stage so that we see the strength and depth of Hester, Emily, Jane, Ameerah.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this and was able to completely identify when Emily resorts to coping with stress by reading the Book of Common Prayer, while sitting at the sunny desk in her library as the church bells in Berkeley Square ring out. It's just so indicative of a belief in an ordered universe. That belief, I think, is a big part of the book's charm for me.

Note: The Persephone edition is lovely. (I really wish the exchange rate was better...)