This might be a rather hackneyed way of describing a book that takes an unexpected turn, but it doesn’t change the fact that The Making of a Marchioness is a very deceptive book. The first half of the story faithfully follows the ‘Cinderella’ plot to its conclusion and because this part is rather slight in comparison with the rest of the story, it seems almost as if the author has ended it rather prematurely and abruptly. If you went into the story expecting a fairy tale romance, or at least a simple romance, you would be subtly but swiftly disillusioned since the book has only the appearance of being a conventional ‘plucky orphan meets rich bastard, stormy drama of clashing egos, they both acknowledge their flaws and fall in love and get married’ type of narrative. For all intents and purposes, the overarching story line of the first part is superficially a romance of goodness rewarded; but underneath it is a desperate and dispiriting struggle of a woman to justify her right to existence in a world tailored to drop her into the abyss. Burnett’s commentary on marriage and the situation of women doesn’t make for pleasant reading, especially because it is coated in the syrup of a story whose shape we think we know and therefore expect it to be uplifting. Even though technically, the book has two ‘happily ever afters,’ it is anything but, perhaps due to the veneer of helplessness that surrounds the stories of the women.
Burnett is under no illusions about how society’s expectations for women are more exacting than for men, and it makes me think that the sheer ridiculousness of the Catch-22 situation that Lady Agatha Slade and her family is placed in – where the marriage of the eldest is of vital importance so that her poverty stricken but genteel family can marry off the rest of the girls respectably (and there’s far more nuance to this situation in the book than these bare bones) – is one of the scenes that epitomizes all that is unreasonable and hollow about the demands of society; the intricacies of ‘coming out’ and the elaborate dance of keeping up the appearance of gentility is such a wholly unnecessary burden. there is almost a deliberate cleverness in this manner of tying women down to frivolous things which keeps them from expounding their energies in a direction that would give them personal satisfaction from an activity that does not depend upon the condescending acquiescence of men.
This book makes for an exemplary examination of the origins of the practice of mocking traditionally feminine things. The lives of girls and women literally does depend on the care they pay to their clothes and appearance; they need to parade themselves in front of potential suitors so that they can attain respectability through marriage. Since Burnett’s focus is primarily on penniless but well-born women for whom marriage is mandatory, we can see this façade of socially sanctioned respectability for the empty thing that it is. These women are supposed to radiate and aura of ‘amiability and usefulness’ while indulging in prohibitively expensive but absolutely necessary ‘fashion’ for them to be considered socially acceptable. This whole industry of buying and selling women’s bodies serves as an effective foil for the point that Burnett is building upon – that women like Emily are always afraid of the future with good reason because there must inevitably come a time when they are deemed ‘useless’ by society’s impossible standards and also because of a social climate which did not allow them to build their own future independent of men.
Although this is a romantic narrative, none of it ‘feels’ remotely romantic – if by romantic you take it to mean a story where two people find mutually shared love and happiness with each other. It felt rather like a bitter indictment of the complete lack of agency that women are forced to be content with, since there is no visible safety net to catch those women who might want to jump off this social cliff.
After that massive digression from the actual story, I should note that with regards to issues of race, this book is rather dated in ways that are painfully illuminating of the thought practices of a different era – although that doesn’t make them any less jarring.
So while I didn’t happen to find The Making of a Marchioness engrossing or enjoyable in a way that made me want to give it a re-read anytime soon, it was really interesting for all the slightly deconstructionist and subversive social history of a society obsessed with itself and constrained within a trap of its own making.