Emily Fox-Seton is a single, well bred woman of 35, with some education but absolutely no money. She lives in one room of a boarding house, and with the help of the daughter of the house, is able to work her limited wardrobe as best they can.
She therefore works for a living, surviving by running errands for various wealthy people around London. When one of her employers invites her for a summer holiday at a country estate, Emily is ecstatically grateful and accepts. One of the guests is the Marquis of Walderhurst, an older, very rich but not someone Emily considers to be particularly attractive. With three younger, more attractive (but not necessarily richer) single women in the house party, there is immense speculation as to who the Marquis is going to select as his second wife (his first wife having died not long after giving birth to the now dead first child).
To her surprise the Marquis (he’s in his late 50s) proposes and they are married. Soon afterwards the Osborns – the heir presumptive to the Marquis’ title and estate if he hadn’t married again with another chance of having an heir – returns to England with his pregnant wife. Emily, being a naive innocent women, befriends both of them and Hester in particular.
Emily realises she is pregnant when Edward is away on business in India, and it takes a while for others to realise that the Osborns wish her and her unborn baby harm. She escapes to London where she is protected. She gives birth to the wanted boy but is on her death bed when Edward returns from India (he’s been ill himself and Emily has been warned not to tell of the pregnancy).
It later transpires that the Osborns have had a girl (who would never have inherited no matter what happened with Emily), and that Alec had died after “accidentally” shooting himself in the head whilst drunk.
This book is a surprise in several different ways. First that Burnett had written a book for adults, as she is better known for writing for children. Second, that she has includes alcoholism and domestic abuse (in the Osborns). The last chapter in particular is not a “happily ever after” rather a “here’s how an abusive husband has been managed and I have to live with the result”.
The Marquis appears little in the story – it is primarily about her after all, and how people react to someone who is essentially good and innocent (a desire to protect and look after being the uppermost wants). The only people who want to damage her really are The Osborns – Alec because he is a drunk who sees his escape from debts and India being taken away from him by this healthy decent woman, Hester because she’s scared of Alec and Hester’s amah because she’ll do anything for her mistress.
As a reader Emily not an annoying character – Burnett travels a fine line between an attractive innocent and someone you want to shake to bring her to her senses.
If compared to “The Secret Garden”, “Marchioness” is a more subtle, less “playing outside is good for you” patronising – although Emily does have a favourite place outside away from everyone and beside a quiet pool, where she gets to mediate, so there is a certain amount of showing Burnett’s interest in gardening.