The Making of a Lady is a quick-spun Edwardian gothic inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1901 novel The Making of a Marchioness. I had read the book in the fashionable Echo reprint editions (actually not at all fashionable; just bland out-of-print reprints on demand ) when I was working through Burnett’s adult canon. I remembered enjoying it greatly.
The film is squeezed into a 90 minute adventure by ITV and I thought it worked very well despite the time constraints. Emily FoxSeton is the prime example of a working woman at the turn of the century. She is poor, has no connections, no marital prospects and, when is passed over for the job of a secretary at the same time she risks losing her flat, she is forced to decide how much she values security. This challenge comes in the form of Lord Walderhurst, a retired army colonel, late of the Indian Regiment (Burnett always sewed in colonial mysticism, n’est pas? )who asks her to marry him, citing her pragmatic mind and reasonability.
Having always wanted to marry for love, Emily hesitates; but finally, recognizing that she is setting herself up for life in a practical way and helping a respectable gentleman secure the heir he needs to keep his inherited estate, agrees.
Soon Emily is mistress of a beautiful house which will put one in mind of Northanger Abbey: all of its twists and turns and secret passages and an omen-like appearance of a black raven. Ten miles from the nearest village, it is a cloistered space occupied only by Emily and her new husband and a minimal amount of house staff.
The next sequence is my favourite of the piece: the gentle blossoming of a true affection between Emily and her new husband. The shackles pervading through the convenient aspect of their marriage are trumped by Lord Waldehurst’s gentleness and growing affection for Emily. I don’t remember a lot about the book’ but I do remember that, at one point, Lord Waldehurst expresses surprise that Emily has taught him to miss her. While a cementation of physical attachment is necessary if Emily is to fulfill her role as mother, Walderhurst shows great restraint in not wanting to take advantage of her. Soon, the physically shy Emily ( perfectly rigid as per the constructs and restraints of her time ) is set slightly more at ease--- just as her husband is deployed back to the regiment.
When Lord Osborne, next in line to inherit the estate, and his beautifully exotic wife arrive to act as companions to the now pregnant Emily in the wake of her husband’s time in the East, strange things begin to happen and Emily is put in mortal danger. While fantastical and sensationalized ( and face it, slightly ridiculous in the vein of one of those Alcott dreadfuls ) it is just a really suspenseful and chilling adaptation that heightens the Gothic elements of the tale and brings it to a halted, breathtaking climax and sweet, substantial denouement.
ITV did a lot with 90 minutes and you will feel greatly for the heroines.
On a secondary level, I appreciated the story for its exploration of women’s circumstances in the early Edwardian period. There is a sense of desperation to Emily borne of the fact that her independence is rather a millstone. In a crucial scene, Lord Walderhurst appraises Emily’s unattached status and lack of family as something wonderful. No obligations, he believes, freedom in the truest sense. Ironically, it is her lack of security and financial attachment that threatens dire circumstance. Later, when safely entrenched as Marchioness Walderhurst, her new husband approaches the subject again; noting that, with the exception of her duty to provide an heir and tend to house, she will be remarkably free. Of course, in a lovely twist, Emily’s new-found freedom is stolen from her as the world closes around her and several trapped, confined locations (including a priest hole in the wall and a small, rickety house falling to decay on the grounds) become the only places she can steal away to when her life is endangered. On a tertiary level, I snickered at Walderhurst’s well-meant treatise on freedom because while she is promised liberty as mistress of a house, she still is required to fit her feminine role and have a child—locking her into her new life forever.
Emily’s wrestling with each well-thought choice is part of why I loved her. She is, indeed, a pragmatic character; but she shows great resolve. And watching her deftly fall in love with her husband made for one of the sweetest romances I have seen in a bit.