Archive for the ‘Frances Hodgson Burnett’ Category

n321536Living in the wilds of Canada, I knew that a television adaptation of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett was going to be airing on ITV this December but I did not know when.  However, since there was apparently a mad rush by viewers to Google the book in the hour or two immediately after The Making of a Lady aired Sunday night, I now know.  I came home after spending the morning volunteering to find that my visitor stats had gone through the roof.  I feel a bit exasperated that such a surge comes for one of my oldest reviews and for a book I did not like but isn’t that just typical of how little control we book bloggers have over directing readers to the reviews we are most proud of?

Obviously, I haven’t seen the adaptation yet but the reviews seem to be almost universally negative .  If you saw it, what did you think?

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credit: Joan Griswold

I’m never particularly eager to make favourites lists.  I love them but it’s such a brutal process: all those wonderful books that get cut!  I read roughly 200 books in 2010 and loved so many of them.  Usually I measure my favourite books by not just the initial reading experience but my desire to reread the book.  Since most of my books come from the library, the true test of a book is whether after reading it I want to search out a copy to own.  Except my opinion changes day to day, hour to hour, making lists rather difficult to compile with any confidence.  But lists, however stressful I may find them, are still fun and it was interesting to review my year with all its ups and downs and pick the ten titles that stood out for me.  Here they are, in order:

10. The Shuttle (1906) – Frances Hodgson Burnett
My most eagerly-anticipated Persephone title, I adored this tale of the effervescent Betty and her spirited quest.  The melodramatic ending, a trademark of FHB, did grate, which is why the book didn’t place higher on this list.

9. Can Any Mother Help Me? (2007) – Jenna Bailey
A wonderful collection of letters written between the women of the Cooperate Correspondence Club, mostly from the 1930s to 1960s, begun as a way of keeping active and engaged with intelligent society despite days surrounded by toddlers and dirty dishes.

8. A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True (2009) – Brigid Pasulka
Part multi-generational family saga, part fairy tale, this novel set in Poland during the 1930s and 1940s as well as the early 1990s was the best kind of surprise.

7. Why We Act Like Canadians (1982) – Pierre Berton
Combining two of my great loves – books about the Canadian identity and Pierre Berton – was always going to end well but Why We Act Like Canadians truly did the best job of any book out there at explaining Canadians both for foreign and domestic audiences.  With his usual romantic flair, Berton made this book not just fascinating but beautiful to read.

6. The Rehearsal (2008) – Eleanor Catton
The story of a community reacting to an illict relationship between a teacher and student at an all-girls school provided a very unique reading experience that forced me out of my comfort zone.  I was more than rewarded for my diligence with fascinatingly complex relationships and skillfully-executed themes.  This doesn’t seem to be a book for everyone but I loved it.

5. Mariana (1940) – Monica Dickens
Surprisingly hilarious, my first Persephone novel was nothing less than an absolute success.

4. Greenery Street (1925) – Denis Mackail
Immediately after finishing this charming book about a newly married couple I said that I wanted to live in it.  Now, not even two months after reading it, I already miss Ian and Felicity and their dear little home on Greenery Street.

3. Lunch in Paris (2010) – Elizabeth Bard
I adore this book, the story of Bard’s life in Paris after falling in love with a Frenchman.  The recipes are fantastic but Bard’s engaging voice and energetic but not overly romantic attitude towards her new French life made for a delightful read.  Easily the book I recommended the most over the course of the year.

2. Women of the Raj (1988) – Margaret MacMillan
This book may have left me with a phobia of cobras falling from the ceiling but it also provided an excellent education on the British Raj and the lives of European women in India.  It’s one of those books that I want to carry around with me always, just so I can press a copy onto random strangers.

1. Mrs Tim Flies Home (1952) – D.E. Stevenson
I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.

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I should think that, by now, there are few among us who are not familiar with The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  From first hearing of it, it’s been the Persephone that I was most eager to read (despite it being an abridged edition).  As a child, I had mixed feelings towards FHB: I adored A Little Princess but nothing bored me more than The Secret Garden.  It seems that I have the same feelings towards her adult novels: I found The Making of a Marchioness to be tedious and unoriginal but now I find it difficult to describe how much I loved The Shuttle.

I could not put it down – I picked it up mid-afternoon and did not rest until I turned that last page hours later.  I, who am usually so disciplined about going to bed at a reasonable hour, read late into the night to see how it ended, sacrificing sleep for such satisfaction.  Honestly, I can’t remember the last time this happened. 

The Shuttle considers the ‘dollar princesses’, wealthy American heiresses who married into the British nobility, giving the young ladies instant social standing and providing their husbands with much-needed funds.  At the beginning of FHB’s tale, young Rosalie Vanderpoel, eldest daughter of a New York millionaire, naively marries Sir Nigel Anstruthers, ignorant that, for him, the attraction of the match is her fortune, not herself.  But Bettina (Betty), Rosalie’s much younger sister, is immediately suspicious of her new brother-in-law.  When the family loses contact with Rosalie soon after her wedding, Betty knows that the cruelty she had glimpsed in Sir Nigel is being directed at her sister and so, as a child, she begins to plan her sister’s rescue and so most of the novel deals with a grown-up Betty carrying out that long-planned rescue.

It’s the character of Betty Vanderpoel that makes this novel so delightful and so memorable.  Betty is perfect.  Not in an obnoxious, insipid way, but in the sense that you can’t help admiring her, wishing there were more people like her in the world.  Indeed, there is an implication that if there were more women like Betty in the world to marry Englishmen, then the nation’s problems would be solved.  She has enthusiasm, intelligence, and a well-ordered mind.  I’m not sure I know how to praise someone more highly.  FHB describes her in equally glowing terms: 

She had genius, but it was not specialized.  It was not genius which expressed itself through any one art.  It was a genius for life, for living herself, for aiding others to live, for vivifying mere existence.  She herself was, however, aware only of an eagerness of temperament, a passion for seeing, doing, and gaining knowledge.  Everything interested her, everybody was suggestive and more or less enlightening. (p. 75-76)

Betty reminded me greatly of Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl.  But with her money and connections and in a new century, Betty’s options are very different compared to those of her literary forbearers.  For all those people who insist that the talents of intelligent, wealthy women were wasted by not being employed outside of the home, I give Betty as the example that this is simply not true.  The considered management of an estate, the responsibility for those it supports, these are not light tasks and for Betty they are challenges, but ones her training and character make her well-suited to take on.  Betty is a born manager, but managers are needed outside of businesses, they are needed in homes and communities where they will not see remuneration for their efforts.  The respect and admiration she receives was particularly pleasing: male onlookers didn’t seem shocked that it was a woman managing the estate projects, just surprised that they’d finally be tackled and with such efficiency and taste!

When you have such an outstanding heroine, it is only natural that she must have a hero to equal her.  FHB casts the impoverished Lord Mount Dunstan in this role, first introduced during a shipboard crisis, allowing him and Betty to acknowledge one another as like souls in their ability to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” (indeed, it occurs to me that Kipling’s ‘If’ would be the perfect poem for this extraordinary duo). 

Do you remember muscular Christianity?  Tom Brown et al? FHB repeatedly correlates the admirable physical appearance of leads with their moral superiority, never more so than when the following remark about them is made at a ball:

He is a magnificently built man, you know, and she is a magnificently built girl.  Everybody should look like that.  My impression would be that Adam and Eve did, but for the fact that neither of them had any particular character. (P. 327)

The very Victorian/Edwardian theme of health as a symbol of purity of spirit and moral character is let loose here: both Betty and Mount Dunstan are extraordinary for their physical appearance and, therefore, it follows that they are the most charitable, sensible, ethical characters.  And, of course, they have spirit and energy, traits viewed here as very American and contrasted against the decrepit (both morally and physically) Sir Nigel. 

The book had been going so well until it descended into cheap melodrama near the end, with Betty seeming losing all sense.  I shan’t go into detail, suffice to say that I found Betty’s behaviour extremely unconsidered and out of character.  We’re told over and over again how intelligent and rational Betty is and then she gets herself into this ridiculous situation!  After enjoying the book so much, I was sadly disappointed with FHB for descending to such cheap clichés, unworthy or her heroine or, frankly, of her usually subtle villain.

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There are many adoring reviews of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett elsewhere on the internet.  If that is what you are looking for, please, go find them, for that is not what you will find here.

The Making of a Marchioness tells the Cinderella story of Emily Fox-Seton, a thirty four-year old spinster of good family but little means who makes her living by assisting wealthy women, doing everything from their errands to engaging their servants.  And she is oh so good and oh so thankful to be of such help.  Emily is not clever, certainly not witty or engaging, but she is good and that is her salvation.

I know that what makes this book different and special is that fact that Emily is good, that her goodness is her defining characteristic unlike so many popular heroines.  But I literally ached to throw the book across the room any time other characters gazed at her admiringly, in awe of her unselfish goodness and obvious moral superiority (of which she never shows any awareness – another sign of her estimable innocence).  I refrained from doing so only because it was a library book.  Oh Becky Sharp, I have never loved you as much as I did reading this book and for the contrast you provided.

I found this novel far too reminiscent of the fairy tales and books of ‘strong moral character’ that are pushed upon children (hardly surprising, given the author).  In those tales, the girls and women were always rewarded for their goodness (which, hopefully, goes some way towards making up for the flatness of their character).  If you were very good and very selfless, a comfort to your parents and a delight to those who met you, then a rich man would come and marry you and make all your troubles disappear.  That is exactly what happens here.  Another advertisement to women that men don’t want clever wives, no, they want ones who will adore them without question, who will give of themselves and ask nothing in return.  Far better to be the angel in the house than a true companion and equal. 

I like fairy tales.  I like when the prince rescues the princess and they go off to live happily ever after.  What I don’t like is when the prince has dozens of princesses throwing themselves at him and he chooses the dullest, quietest, most adoring one, because he knows his life will be easiest with her since she will never cause him any trouble.  I hate that intelligence is completely disregarded and that Emily is referred to several times, almost proudly, as “not clever”.  If she was clever, it is implied, she could not be as good as she is.  And it is only because she is good and innocent and selfless that her fairy tale comes true and, in the end, long after the wedding, her prince (or Marquis, as the case may be) comes to see her true value in his life.

Is this coming across as both angry and a bit jaded?  I apologize for the departure from my normal tone, but this book stirred feelings in me that I thought had been left behind.  Emily is very much the stereotype of what young women and girls are supposed to be, what we are constantly told we should be, and it’s a stereotype that I have been chaffing against since childhood.  I am sure others find it a delightful read but I find I no longer have the stomach for these characterless paragons of virtue.  I would not mind Emily half so much if it were difficult for her to be as good as she is, if she struggled even privately to maintain her aura of simple sweetness and purity.  But she does not and so I cannot find it in me to like her or to move beyond this prejudice to admire the charm of her story.

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