Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Making of a Marchioness (1901) is a charming, comfortable book. The beef tea of literature, it is old fashioned yet seems curiously appealing when you are ill, or a little miserable. It starts as a classic Cinderella story, yet in the second half The Methods of Lady Walderhurst it becomes a gothic drama, complete with sinister servants and treacherous cousins. What makes it so delightful is that both hero and heroine of the tale are dull, and even a little dim, and the narrator gently mocks them for it.
Emily Fox-Seton, the heroine is an archetypal English Rose, and like a rose is uncomplicated, old fashioned, and utterly delightful. You could easily apply a critical post-colonial lens to this book, or examine the role of women in Edwardian society. Many have, and it’s included in several college syllabuses. But I’m not going to. I am going to take it at face value, a story where goodness and generosity are rewarded and the bad end badly. When you’re under the weather you want fairytales, not literary criticism.
Like this book, rose gardens have fallen out of fashion recently, due to their indulgent use of space, and are now mainly to be found in parks and botanic gardens with a rather Victorian feel about them. When you find one in full flower though it’s heavenly. Many of the important events of the book take place in a rose garden, somewhat unsurprisingly, as Frances Hodgson Burnett also wrote The Secret Garden. It is in the rose gardens of a kindly employer’s country house that Emily has her first real encounter with Lord Walderhurst, and it is as understated as the rest of their romance:
|AUGUSTE TOULMOUCHE (1829-1890)|
‘Emily adored the flowers as she walked by their beds, and at intervals stopped to bury her face in bunches of spicy things...
She was startled, as she turned into a rather narrow rose-walk, to see Lord Walderhurst coming towards her. He looked exceedingly clean in his fresh light knickerbocker suit, which was rather becoming to him. A gardener was walking behind, evidently gathering roses for him, which he put into a shallow basket…. As Emily was just passing him when he turned again, and as the passage was narrow, he found himself unexpectedly gazing into her face.
Being nearly of the same height, they were so near each other that it was a little awkward.
‘I beg pardon,’ he said, stepping back a pace and lifting his straw hat.’
It is the fragile, heavily scented old fashioned roses that one pictures Walderhurst gathering at Mallowe, however hybrid teas began to be bred in the 1890s so could feasibly have spoilt the rather romantic image with their brash colours and fleshy blooms. All well and good in their place, but their place is not in a fairytale. Despite what the Slipper and the Rose would have you think.
We are lucky then, that Frances Hodgson Burnett specifically names one of the roses grown at Mallowe-
‘The next morning she was in the gardens early, gathering roses with the dew on them, and was in the act of cutting some adorable ‘Mrs Sharman Crawfords’ when she found it behoved her to let down her carefully tucked up petticoats, as the Marquis of Walderhurst was walking straight towards her.’
Mrs Sharman Crawford is a hybrid perpetual variety, the link between old roses and modern hybrid teas. A beautiful double pink, Mrs Sharman Crawfords are sadly lacking in scent, though, like Emily Fox Seton’s absent sense of humour, we can’t have everything in life.
Vita Sackville-West wrote of the heavily scented old roses which she loved: ‘There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people.’ While VSW would have almost certainly disapproved of the staid Edwardian romance of Making of a Marchioness, her description could have been written to describe Emily Fox-Seton whose defining characteristic is her generosity.
I have recommended this book to several people, and my friend, having read it whilst having a hard time at work said ‘it was so lovely, it gives you the feeling of a royal wedding.’ It is unexacting, a fairytale for two dreary people, when so often books demand unrealistic fascination from their characters.
Front gardens around the country are currently filled with roses, and I recommend you go for a walk to seek them out. Alternatively, the rose gardens at Kew and David Austin, as well as the City of Belfast International Rose Garden are all at peak flowering time now, put on a big floppy hat, tuck up your petticoats and seek them out. And next time you need cheering up, treat yourself and read The Making of a Marchioness. And if you’ve the space, plant a rose or two. You won’t regret it.
David Austin- rose grower, his catalogue is a fairytale in its own right.