“Husbands and wives annoy each other very little in these days. Married life has become comparatively decent.”
“I want to make sure of the fish. Fish is one of the problems of country life. Fishmongers are demons, and when they live five miles from one they can arouse the most powerful human emotions.”
“That is the last charm nature leaves a woman, the power to give decent dinners.”
Lady Maria (Joanna Lumley), Lord Walderhurst’s Aunt is the source of these amusing quotes which comes largely in the first third of the book, “The Making of a Marchioness.” That book, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1906, formed the basis of the recent British ITV/PBS made-for-TV movie, “The Making of a Lady.”
“Her ladyship was an old woman who indulged and inspired herself with an Epicurean wisdom. Though she would not have stupid people about her, she did not always want very clever ones. ‘They give me too much exercise,’ she said. ‘The epigrammatic ones keep me always jumping over fences. Besides, I like to make all the epigrams myself.’”
I would have been happy to read an entire book about her, but unfortunately, her epigrams fall away after the beginning. The set up, which like everything in the book takes way too long, introduces Jane Fox-Seton (Lydia Wilson) as she becomes an errand runner for Lady Maria. Jane comes from a good family, but has no financial support, so is forced to work on her own. Until she meets Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache) .
The ladies Jane lodged with, the Cupps, mother and daughter Jane, were quite pleased with her, and reveal their vision of English country life among the wealthy.
“She seemed to bring into their dingy lodging-house a touch of the great world — that world whose people lived in Mayfair and had country houses where they entertained parties for shooting and the hunting, and in which also existed the maids and matrons, who on cold spring mornings sat, amid billows of satin and tulle and lace, surrounded with nodding plumes, waiting, shivering, for hours in their carriages that they might at last enter Buckingham Palace and be admitted to the Drawing-Room.”
But then boring but proper little Jane meets Lord Walderhurst. He was previously married but his wife died along with their infant son. He needs an heir, and therefore a wife — a non-complaining wife. And as we are told endlessly in the novel, Jane is innocent and compliant and always glad to make other people happy. Fortunately, the TV movie portrays her as less insipid.
Lord Waldenhurst also improves in the TV drama — but then that would not be difficult, I’m thinking, when we meet him in the novel.
In the novel, an American girl angling for a marriage with a wealthy Englishman invites Lord Walderhurst to visit New York. “Perhaps I will come, said Walderhurst. “I have been thinking about it. One is tired of the Continent, and one knows India. One doesn’t know Fifth Avenue, and Central Park, and the Rocky Mountains.”
He rejects the young beauties thrown at him and chooses Jane instead, as the best companion and least threatening to his bland personality.
He looked at Emily as “he always looked on her with curiosity and a novel sensation rather like pleasure.” A real romantic, that one!
Thank goodness the TV movie does away with his monocle. The visual effect would have turned the whole story into a comedy instead of the suspenseful Gothic romance it became.
The complication, in both the book and the TV movie, comes when a non-reputable cousin, Alec Osborn (James D’Arcy) and his half-Indian (GASP!) wife, Hester (Hasina Haque) , arrive on the scene, along with the wife’s faithful servant, a sneaky and evil dark-skinned person. (Yes, the early 20th century English prejudices are showing!) But the cousin will be done out of his inheritance if Walderhurst manages to have another child, so he plots to kill Jane. (BOO!)
To assist them in their nefarious deeds, the plot calls for Lord Walderhurst to leave the country for a time.
I can just see the script writers thumbing through the novel and tossing aside page after page of the talk about fashion and manners and entertaining as they dig for the few gems of action. In the end, they despair and create some likely action of their own, compressing all the endless descriptions of Jane as sincere but dull and Lord Walderhurst as stiff and unfeeling.
The couple, as portrayed in “The Making of a Lady,” are actually quite attractive, and it is much easier for a modern viewer to relate to them than to the book’s class-bound couple. The TV movie manages to make the mansion turn from a welcoming light-filled place surrounded by gardens to a gloomy and threatening place of evil as the plot against Jane progresses. And without slipping into melodrama, true threats arise and are thwarted. (YAY!)
The book is adored by readers who want to immerse themselves in the past and read in great detail about costumes, and the action gets shoved aside. The TV movie shows those costumes in all their glory, without our having to read about them for pages, and sharpens the drama.
“The Making of a Lady” aired on PBS on Feb. 9, 2014 and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. You can watch it online here.
You can get a paperback copy of “The Making of a Marchioness,” or buy the Kindle version for $1.99, which is what I did.