To claim Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s most popular work as “The Secret Garden” is a given. And yes, other major titles from her are “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “A Little Princess“. But this week, ITV airs an adaptation from another novel by Hodgson Burnett: “The Making of a Marchioness“. Adapted as “The Making of a Lady“, the novel was written in 1901, in between the release of her most celebrated works. However, most people would never attribute this novel to Hodgson Burnett. Mostly remembered for her contribution to children’s literature and stories that focus on the imagination and on the ultimate victory of moral values above all, this author has also produced works that display a more diversified range of shades.
Among these is “That Lass O’ Lowries” (1877), where religion is one of the main themes. The main character, Joan Lowrie, works as a miner in Lancashire and gives the author the best chance to discover, develop and present this reality through the eyes of a woman. Hodgson Burnett carefully depicted the working class of the time and implemented the use of dialects and colloquial terms to convey a more concrete sense of reality to the reader, thus forcing an active reading exercise. Her first novel gave her popularity in both England and the USA, where she had moved a decade prior. After going to Boston in 1879, where she first met Louisa May Alcott (the author of “Little Women“), she considered writing children’s literature for the first time, but waited a few more years before starting work on “Little Lord Fauntleroy“. Instead, she published “Louisiana” in 1880 (the story of a mountain girl who is treated to a makeover by a New York girl), “A Fair Barbarian” in 1881 (a typical Victorian novel dealing with class and gender issues and depicting the arrival of american socialite Octavia Bassett in England), and “Through One Administration” in 1883 (a novel dealing with women’s rights in the Washington DC parlor parties and discussing the institution of marriage from a female perspective).
As one can gather from this short review of the author’s writings, Frances Hodgson Burnett isn’t just a writer of children’s literature. Perhaps, since her big success came with children’s books, she is mostly remembered for this. However, she spoke on the condition of women and their rights, about marriage and class divide and serious matters, subjects her contemporaries are most celebrated about. The plot of “A Fair Barbarian” can serve as a forerunner of what George Bernard Shaw wrote and brought to the stage with “Pygmalion“, which means she deserves much more credit than she is being given.
Following the big success of “Little Lord Fauntleroy“, Hodgson Burnett produced other novels : “The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax” was written in Florence during her first trip to Europe in years, and was not published in the US but just in England and “The Pretty Sister of José” followed in 1889.
After a few more publications came the book from which the ITV adaptation came from: “The Making of a Marchioness“, followed by the sequel “The Methods of Lady Walderhurst” and later combined as “Emily Fox-Seton” remains the one that places her name really distant from the image and popularity she gained through the years. Out of print for many years, these two short books have later been associated to the same level of Jane Austen’s classics for the way they speak of the society of the time, religion, race and gender issues all mixed into one. The main character, Emily Fox-Seton becomes a Marchioness by marrying into a very aristocratic family in England. While the first part is very Victorian by all means related to society and life, the second one is much more melodramatic and explores mystery and drama in all its glory. While Emily appears to be as naive and gentle as Hodgson Burnett’s heroes and heroines of her most popular novels are, everything around her and all the other characters seem to be as dislikeable as they can be and maybe this is why it is so interesting to see how the author deploys her narrative techniques. The reason this novel seems to be the most distant from her notorious works is that it shows a Gothic influence at some point, and suspensful thriller scenes one would not expect from the creator of “The Secret Garden“. Yet, a fuller picture can help us appreciate Frances Hodgson Burnett for the writer she was, and not just for the impression we had about her for so many years.