One of the few bits of Christmas television that I'd heard about, and was also looking forward to, was an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's 'The Making of a Marchioness' renamed The Making of a Lady, and rescheduled to be shown last Sunday evening. There was a slightly worrying article in the Telegraph over the weekend which rather dwelt on the shoe string budget and didn't inspire confidence in the finished article. Fears that turned out to be well justified; The Making of a Lady was mostly terrible, I won't knock the acting particularly - I don't know how much they could have done with what ended up being a rotten adaptation of quite an interesting story, Elaine has strong feelings about this book, her reactions and the following comments sum up what went wrong. The good to come out of it was that I reread my own copy.
'The Making of a Marchioness' must have been one of the first Persephone's I bought, it had been a while since I read it, and the details were hazy - I remembered enough to know that the first half was a Cinderella story, the second a thriller. Lingering impressions were of an enjoyable but not brilliant read. Second time around I have a better appreciation of why this book is such a favourite with some.
Emily Fox-Seaton is 34, well born, desperately poor, and frequently described as childlike in her goodness, innocence, and when she smiles. Emily doesn't think of herself as an intelligent woman, and neither does anybody else, but she's extremely practical and thoughtful with excellent taste. Her childlike qualities have nothing to do with childishness and are principally an innocence concerning worldly matters, a limited sense of humour, and an ability to take pleasure from any mildly pleasant thing around her. 34 is a depressing age for an unmarried woman though, there is a growing sense that one day she will be unable to run the errands for people by which she makes a sort of living, as well as the realisation that she is quite alone in the world except for the interested affection of her landlady and landladies daughter.
Loneliness, poverty, and the need to maintain appearances are not issues that have gone away so it's deeply satisfying when Emily is rescued by Lord Walderhurst at a moment when everything seems quite hopeless (and a great pity that this scene was dropped from the adaptation as it's hilarious). Walderhurst's proposal isn't particularly romantic, but Emily likes him, and the reader can agree with his aunt that he's shown remarkable good sense in choosing her, and really, what sensible girl wouldn't be thrilled to hear the words "You are the woman I want...You make me feel quite sentimental."? It's enough for Emily and I anyway.
So much for the Cinderella story, now the thriller - and this is the bit that ITV really made a mess of. Lord Walderhurst has an heir presumptive, a generally bad egg called Alec Osborn, Alec comes back on leave from India with a bitter wife and a silently watchful servant. Hester Osborn is Emily's opposite in every way. Where Emily has always looked for the silver lining, Hester has brooded on life's slings and arrows, Her marriage isn't happy - Alec is an abusive drunk - and pregnancy is adding to her anxieties. It would be so much better for them if an accident were to befall the also pregnant Emily; just as long as nothing could be proven...
I have no idea how common or otherwise depictions of domestic violence were in popular Edwardian fiction, I can think of a few examples but suspect that then, as now, it's a somewhat taboo subject. Burnett was apparently writing from experience, she certainly paints a convincing picture of how a thing can get out of hand. Hester, who remembers that she loved her husband as well as being frightened of him, shares his sense of resentment that the Walderhurst fortune is slipping away from them so at first it's easy enough to ignore his plotting, but can she continue to do so?
The beauty of the book is that there is an acknowledgement that it's all ridiculous and melodramatic - everybody gets caught up in the situation which Burnett then diffuses quite naturally before building it up again with the everyday drama of childbirth and reunion. 'The Making of a Marchioness' isn't a perfect book - some of it has aged in a way that's just a little awkward, but it's a really satisfying one which deserved rather better treatment than it got the other night.