It wasn’t part of my plan to revisit Frances Hodgson Burnett because I loved her Little Princess as a child (don’t let me start on the Japanese anime version Princess Sarah, I would probably make a fool of myself!).
No, I just saw this book in the Persephone list and (I’m embarrassed to say) downloaded the Gutenberg version on my Kindle. I expected saccharine and late Victorian conventions, but I have to say it went well beyond my expectations. I mean, for worse rather than for better. It’s written like a melodrama, but there are too many disturbing elements for the magic of suspended disbelief to apply.
The first part is a sort of Cinderella tale, but one where Cinderella would only rely on her naivety and honesty, not on her looks and wit. Miss Emily Fox-Seton is genteel and (insufferably) kind, but she doesn’t have any money, so she has to work as a dignified assistant, and the prospect of getting into middle-age (34!) in this precarious status is a bit daunting. Oh, but she doesn’t rebel against her fate, that wouldn’t be very polite… and it would require a lot more thinking that Miss Emily is used to. But don’t worry, that’s perfectly alright, because the book’s Prince charming doesn’t really like women who are intelligent and witty, he’d rather have a quiet wallflower (or no wife at all, but in this matter he too doesn’t have a choice, he has to have an heir). She’s here to breed and smile, so that the lord and master can rest after his day’s work. Given that Miss Emily is not exactly young, the production of an heir might be trickier than for other possible girls in the
cattle fair wedding market, but as we are in a fairy tale, the miracle occurs indeed.
This first part is a rather weird mix, because Burnett switches from bits of social commentary about the fate of single women without marriage prospect, bits of factual information about how women get by with a small budget (prices included) to traditional sentimental fluff. Burnett doesn’t seem to believe very much in her own main character, informing us readers several times that Miss Emily is a bit simple, which is presented as a virtue. At some point I decided that she wanted to ridicule her, but no, she’s rather a creature to be pitied. Burnett probably wanted to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian gender stereotypes, and ridicule what a true “angel of the home” looks like amid less virtuous, but more real people, but as she ends the first part with Miss Emily’s successful marriage, I was a bit lost.
The second half goes on to portray her married life, which would be insufferably dull, but for some evil people whom Burnett throws as
Miss Emily’s Lady Walderhurst’s nemesis. Burnett adds a few bitter lines about bad marriages and domestic abuse, but the main point is a Victorian gothic plot that is not very tense (you can smell the happy end by miles). The moment where my tepid feelings turned decisively against the book was the forced exoticism and the slighting remarks on the half-Indian, half-English woman (read: half-good, half-evil) and her evil Indian servant. Indians and in general people with a dark skin are cunning and their strangeness is irreconcilable, despite Lady Emily having read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This part is such a heap of racist, colonial clichés, certainly common in 1901, that it makes for an uncomfortable read if you’re not reading it at a meta level.
If I’m trying to be Fox-Seton-like kind and forgiving, I’d say the first part is worth reading for its social subtext. I try to rationalize it saying that Burnett probably wanted to write a different book, but settled for a conventional potboiler. But if I am 21st-century-blunt, I’d say some old texts are better left gathering dust. Age is no excuse in this matter, and 1901 was a great year for other more memorable books with memorable women caracters, like Claude à Paris by Colette, The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Tony), Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.