In 1901, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a little-known novel entitled “The Making of a Marchioness.” She is likely remember more as the author of “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “The Secret Garden.” PBS has chosen to produce a Made-for TV film entitled “The Making of a Lady,” based on Burnett’s 1901 novel.
Frances Hodson Burnett - Wikimedia
This period picture has its setting at the turn of the twentieth century, and the costumes reflect the times well. The wardrobe of the main characters provides a highpoint of the film, not to be ignored.
Emily Fox Seton (Lydia Wilson) is employed as a companion to Lady Maria Byrne (Joanne Lumley) and graciously does whatever she is asked to do. When Lady Maria alludes to needing a full-time secretary, Emily assumes that she will be in line for the job, which would end the financial straits in which she finds herself presently. Having no family connection, she shares quarters with her friend Jane (Sarah Ridgeway) who is in similar circumstances.
Lady Maria introduced Emily to her nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache) when he stopped by to make arrangements with his aunt for a dinner party that she is planning to give. James is a widower who has no children, and is being pressed by his aunt to find a wife in order to retain the family estate known as Palstrey by producing an heir. If James passes without offspring, the inheritance will fall to his cousin, Captain Alec Osborn (James D’Arcy). Lady Maria has invited a few eligible females and wants to seat one in particular next to James in the hope that a romance will result.
James D'Arcy - Wikimedia
On the evening of the dinner, as Emily is adding the final touches to the dining room, Lady Maria affixed the place cards on the table to her satisfaction. She informed Emily that one lady would not be coming and asked Emily to sit at the empty place. She placed an elegant shawl around her shoulders to complement her outfit. When James stopped by, he noticed who was to be seated next to him, and asked Emily to switch the place card.
Emily is Dismissed
Lady Maria was highly upset that Emily had done so. When the party was over, she informed Emily that her services would no longer be needed as she was planning to hire a full-time secretary. Emily was asked to leave the premises; Lady Maria deftly removed the shawl from Emily’s shoulder also.
James was disturbed at the turn of events and asked to drive Emily home. She said she would prefer to walk. He then asked if he might walk with her. On the way to Emily’s place, James broached with Emily the fact that he was seeking a wife, and would be honored if Emily would marry him. He conceded that there was a slight age gap, but that he was basically a good person, and he would give her all that she wanted. Emily turned him down.
The next scene shows that the wedding preparations are underway in the gardens of Palstrey on a beautiful summer day. Emily’s wedding dress would be the envy of every unmarried girl who saw it. James was in his regimental dress as an officer in the King’s army, and looked elegant.
On that evening, and for several evenings afterward, it appeared that Emily and James remained in their separate rooms. That is, until one evening when Emily put on her dressing gown and walked into James’ room. From that time on, their relationship was a loving and caring bond which neither one had anticipated. James showed Emily a secret room which was between both of their bedrooms, which was called a “priest hole” and where the Walderhurst family hid during war time. A hidden window in the room allowed a person to observe whoever was in either of the two bedrooms.
James Joins His Regiment
It seemed but a short time later that James was informed that matters in India, where his regiment was stationed, had worsened, the people were starving, and they needed all the help they could get. James felt obligated to rejoin his regiment, to the dismay of Emily and the disappointment of James.
Emily was lonely in such a huge house, especially because Mr. and Mrs. Litton, the butler and housekeeper were not friendly to her. In a letter to James, she asked if she might have her friend Jane come for a long stay to keep her company. Of course, James was pleased to have her invite her friend.
James’ Cousin Alec
Emily was introduced in an odd way to James’ cousin Alec when Lady Maria asked her to pick up some medication at the pharmacy and bring it to Captain Alec’s home in the city. She was happy to do it. An elderly Indian lady answered the door in a rather squalid apartment, and Emily was able to see that Alec was in the throes of a dangerous fever, and his Indian wife Hester (Hasina Haque) was ministering to him.
Emily learned that she was pregnant, and she had her friend Jane to confide in, and she was contented. Captain Alec and his wife Hester showed up at the door, stating that James had written them, asking them to stay with Emily to keep her company.
A Different Genre
Things seemed to go downhill from that point on. Alec insisted on riding James’ white horse, something that no one was permitted to do. When Emily was out for a walk on a path around the pond, she noticed that the brown horse was stuck in the pond and the carriage was overturned and sinking. Moving closer, she was able to see that Mr. Litton had drowned. Mrs. Litton no longer wanted to stay there, and two of the young maids decided to leave also.
When Hester showed Emily the letter from James asking Alec and Hester to stay at Palstrey, Emily was quick to realize that the letter was not in James’ handwriting. In fact, she had not received a letter from James in quite a while.
From this point on, the intrigue is multiplied. Poisoned drinks, a killing, infidelity, puzzling behavior, all conspire to turn this romantic tale into a psychological thriller. The reader should be aware that Frances Hodson Burnett had written a sequel to “The Making a Marchioness” and called it “The Methods of Lady Walderhurst.” PBS saw fit to extract some episodes from the latter, incorporating them into the recent film, which accounts for the imposition of a different genre in the second half of the story. Nevertheless, it made for an excellent tale of romance, suspense, and treachery guaranteed to hold your interest.