Part of the portrait of Emily Fox-Seton is that no one would ever think to paint her portrait. She is a gentlewoman, but penniless, and part of her character is to be utterly self-effacing and compliant. As she scrapes and makes ends meet and remakes her gowns so she will be neat and presentable, she faces the world with humility, sweetness, and good humor, and does her wealthy relatives’ errands with a sense of gratitude that she has work to do, and can make a living. Her relatives, of course, like the snarky-but-wonderful Aunt Maria, know that in Emily they possess a jewel, but it’s a diamond they’re quite willing to wear on the soles of their shoes.
This portrait-that-isn’t-a-portrait turns into a love story. Emily is an unconventional heroine, because she marries for both love and money: she is so thankful to be spared her financial distress that her gratitude turns into real, practical, transforming love. A good example is this conversation she has with her friend, Lady Agatha:
“You are not like me,” she explained further. “I have had to work so hard and contrive so closely that everything will be a pleasure to me. Just to know that I never need starve to death or go into the workhouse is such a relief that—”
“Oh!” exclaimed Lady Agatha, quickly and involuntarily laying a hand on hers, startled by the fact that she spoke as if referring to a wholly matter-of-fact possibility.
Emily smiled, realising her feeling.
“Perhaps I ought not to have said that. I forgot. But such things are possible when one is too old to work and has nothing to depend on. You could scarcely understand. When one is very poor one is frightened, because occasionally one cannot help thinking of it.”
“But now—now! Oh! how different!” exclaimed Agatha, with heartfelt earnestness.
“Yes. Now I need never be afraid. It makes me so grateful to—Lord Walderhurst.”
Emily may not be a “clever woman,” someone whose appeal lies in her wit and repartee, but she’s far from stupid. Her intelligence is in her ability to hear and understand others, to find what would please them most, and to order their world in that practical and sensible way. In one way, it’s about class mobility, and in another, it’s about character: Lord Walderhurst’s nephew Alex wants the same transformation Emily has been through for himself and his son, but his desire is characterized as sheer vulgar ambition and greediness, because of the sort of person he is.
The second half of the book provides a significant shift in tone and some nice sensationalism. Poor Emily’s life is in danger, and she has to figure a way out of it almost all by herself. The most interesting parts about this for me were the ways the women prove to be both entirely dependent on the men — for money, food, clothing, housing, and reputation — and extremely strong and intelligent, all at the same time.
If you’ve read A Little Princess, you’ll know that Frances Hodgson Burnett has… er… a little problem sometimes when she talks about India, with racism and exoticism. But like A Little Princess, this book both embraces that othering and pushes it away. Emily is talking to her lady’s maid Jane about the Indian servant Ameerah:
“You must try to overcome it, Jane,” Lady Walderhurst said. “I’m afraid it’s because of her colour. I’ve felt a little silly and shy about her myself, but it isn’t nice of us. You ought to read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and all about that poor religious Uncle Tom, and Legree, and Eliza crossing the river on the blocks of ice.”
“I have read it twice, your ladyship,” was Jane’s earnestly regretful response, “and most awful it is, and made me and mother cry beyond words. And I suppose it is the poor creature’s colour that’s against her, and I’m trying to be kind to her, but I must own that she makes me nervous. She asks me such a lot of questions in her queer way, and stares at me so quiet. She actually asked me quite sudden the other day if I loved the big Mem Sahib. I didn’t know what she could mean at first, but after a while I found out it was her Indian way of meaning your ladyship, and she didn’t intend disrespect, because she spoke of you most humble afterwards, and called his lordship the Heaven born.”
The issues of class, gender, and race that permeate this book make it more than just a fun and romantic read. But it is that as well. I’m so glad that I finally found out that Burnett writes books for adults as well as children! Any recommendations, now that I’ve read this one and The Shuttle?