Frances Hodgson Burnett is the much loved children’s author of the timeless classics The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy and yet how many people know that before the wrote children’s fiction she was a highly successful author of dozens of adult novels? Not many, I would guess.
I was one of the ignorant until one day I came across an American publication in my local library of a book called The Making of a Marchioness. I took it home with me, sat down to read it, and did not speak to anybody for about half a day until I had finished it.
This book features an unlikely pair of lovers - a dull, prosaic Marquis bored by being pursued by society women, and Miss Emily Fox-Seton, who cannot be described in any way as young or beautiful or even interesting. She is a good hearted, good natured woman, living by her own endeavours and, unmarried at nearly 30, facing a frightening future on her own.
She meets her future husband, the Marquis of Walderhurst, at a weekend house party where she is paying for her keep by organising a function for her hostess. At the same party we meet Lady Agatha Slade, a society beauty, who is in a state of high anxiety and nervousness as she feels that she is failing in her duty by not marrying well and saving the family fortunes. With younger sisters at home she knows her time on the marriage market is limited. Despite the disparity in their positions, Lady Agatha and Emily Fox-Seton become friends, linked together by their terror of a lonely old age. On the surface of it, The Making of a Marchioness is a Cinderella story, but Frances Hodgson Burnett was making her own comment on the very nature of the society in which it is set, in which women were at the mercy of circumstances and were only judged by whether they made a ‘good’ marriage or not.
This book was reprinted by Persephone books a few years ago and has been one of their best sellers. They went on to publish another by this author, The Shuttle. This tells the story of the influx of American heiresses in English Edwardian society where their money, married to an English title, saved many a historic family from failure. The title can be looked at it two ways: that of a shuttle weaving the threads together between the two countries or, as a modern usage of the word which we are more used to, that of shuttling backwards and forwards across the Atlantic.
This book is writing of a high order, totally absorbing and in its own way, quite daring. Without giving any of the plot away, there is a scene where our heroine has been abducted and FHB makes it clear that a rape is in the offing. Heavy stuff at that time!
Hesperus Press are now reissuing some of Frances Hodgson Burnett's lesser known titles. The Lost Prince and Lady of Quality are two which I have recently read and which I will be reviewing in due course for the quarterly web magazine, Shiny New Books, which I do urge you to check out. Full of wonderful things and I was privileged to have two of my reviews in Issue No 2.
Many of these titles are available for the Kindle or can be downloaded to whatever e-reader you may have. I think I paid something like 75p for download her entire works which really is a bargain and now I have them with me wherever I go. I think she is a simply wonderful writer and so glad that she is being made available again.