The Making Of A Marchioness, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This is the sort of work where, if you have any familiarity with romance novels, you know where this is going. Yet while a simple and basic level of enjoyment of the plot does not require a lot of thinking, this book is noteworthy at least in the way that it presents a certain set of qualities as being attractive and worthy of benign authorial providence, and it suggests at least some of the way that the author thought of herself and her own youth spent as a shabby genteel relative dependent on the goodwill of relatives and others and in search of a marriage that might help to solve the need for the author’s constant exertions. Alas, while the book itself shows a suitably romantic ending for the two most noble and deserving of the young women who are involved (whether wittingly or unwittingly) in the competitive marriage stakes of the time, the author herself was not so fortunate in her own love life, making her join a long series of writers (including the incomparable Jane Austen) who were able to write sparkling romances but who were not fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the sort of transcendent romances that they wrote about.
This particular book is less than 200 pages long and it follows the adventures of one Emily Fox-Seton, who is a poor relation to much wealthier people, who lacks the sort of cleverness to make others feel insecure and is hard-working and gracious and appreciative (even over-appreciative) for any small favor of generosity that others show to her. Beginning with her having a small room of herself thanks to the generosity of one of her relatives, she finds herself in a place where her diligent labor and ease of getting along with others makes her popular with all of the much more selfish and clever people around her. About a quarter of the way through the novel the author places her in a competition among various young ladies, alternatively oppressed (Lady Agatha Slade), attractive and coy (Cora Brooke), and witty, who are all seeking the hand of the widower Marquis of Walderhurst, who feels he should marry but has no particular fondness for courtship or silliness. And, without spoiling the ending too much I hope, the two most deserving of the young women find themselves married and settled and avoiding the threat of homelessness or despair that threatens them.
What is far more interesting than the rather straightforward plot itself are the larger complications of the story. On the one hand, the author has provided her audience with a somewhat typical society romance where the noble young women are rewarded and the rest are not. Nobility in this case refers to character, not to intellect or attractiveness. Emily Fox-Seton does not consider herself to be particularly bright or particularly attractive, but her excessive diffidence blinds her to the attractiveness of her graciousness with others and her diligent and hard-working attitude. And the fate of Lady Agatha Slade, whose family’s impecunious state threatens half a dozen daughters with a slow death of exile in rural Ireland where no suitable men are likely to ever be found for them, is a somewhat chilling one to reflect on as well. Young women who could not depend on the inherited wealth of generations did not have much time to impress potential husbands, and the fact that the Marquis of Walderhurst, clearly a middle-aged man, is viewed as being an appropriate husband for young women in their late teens and early twenties is a demonstration of cultural changes that make this plot seem less like a romantic happy ending and more like the beginning of a fascinating tale of the asymmetry of power in certain forms of courtship. But some of us wish we were so lucky as the Marquis.