The Shuttle (1907) by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Book review by George Simmers: When my daughter was young I used to read to her regularly, and when she was ten or eleven we both greatly enjoyed the children’s books of Frances Hodgson Burnet. The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Editha’s Burglar. Wonderful stories.

Frances Hodgson Burnet. was born in Manchester, but moved with her family to America when very young. The Shuttle is the first of her adult novels that I have read. Like Little Lord Fauntleroy, it is a study in Anglo-American relations. The title refers to the ships that cross and re-cross the Atlantic, bearing passengers who together weave new kinds of story. Later it is also used to indicate the shuttle on the loom of fate, weaving the fabric of life.

The book begins in New York, at a time when Atlantic crossings were a rarity, and when an English baronet was a glamorous novelty in the city. Rosalie Vanderpoel, the daughter of a millionaire, is enchanted by the prospect of ‘A baronetcy and a manor house reigning over an old English village and over villagers in possible smock frocks.’ Her ‘intimacy with such allurements had been limited by the novels of Mrs. Oliphant and other writers’.

Unfortunately Sir Nigel Anstruthers is a fortune hunter of the ghastliest sort. He wants Rosaile’s money, but is already planning to browbeat and bully her into submission while he continues his life of debauchery. He confiscates letters to and from her parents so that they, far away, think that she no longer has any interest in them.

The first chapters of the novel are chilling, as he exerts his will to dominate her and gain control of the money her father has given her. The book follows the same pattern as her children’s books – a desperate situation in the first section of the book, which will later be remedied by human kindness and enterprise. After ten chapters, Rosalie’s situation is even more desperate than that of Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, condemned to drudgery for the horrible Miss Minchin.

Rosalie’s sister, Bettina, had only been a child when Sir Nigel came courting, but had instinctively disliked him. (In Hodgson Burneyt’s novels, children’s instincts are to be trusted.) Twelve years later, she does not believe that Rosalie has forgotten her parents, and heads to England to investigate.

She is a very determined young woman, who has learned a lot about the ways of the world from her businessman father. She is also astonishingly beautiful, but – more importantly, Burnett marks her out a s a different generation from Rosalie. Bettina makes an interesting literary comment:

“There are a good many girls who can be trusted to do things in these days,” she said. “Women have found out so much. Perhaps it is because the heroines of novels have informed them. Heroines and heroes always bring in the new fashions in character. I believe it is years since a heroine ‘burst into a flood of tears.’ It has been discovered, really, that nothing is to be gained by it. Whatsoever I find at Stornham Court, I shall neither weep nor be helpless. There is the Atlantic cable, you know. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why heroines have changed.”

The frontispiece to my copy (the 1914 popular edition, published by Heinemann.) It shows fiesty Betty expressing her instinctive dislike of the aristocratic Sir Nigel.

She crosses to England, first class, as befits the family’s wealth. When the liner collides with a tramp steamer, however, and all the passengers are panicking, she keeps a clear head, and helps avoid chaos, as does a passenger from the second class, whom she immediately notices as a special kind of man. Her travelling companion Mrs Worthington remarks of him:

“”It’s queer how little one seems to realise even that there are second-cabin passengers,” commented Mrs. Worthington feebly. “That was a nice man, and perfectly respectable. He even had a kind of—of manner.””

The astute reader realises that these two are being set up as a couple. It will take a lot of pages for them to get properly together.

In England, Bettina loves the countryside, and once again the references are literary:

“Mitford and Miss Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot. The land which softly rolled and clothed itself in the rich verdure of many trees, sometimes in lovely clusters, sometimes in covering copse, was Constable’s; the ripe young woman with the fat-legged children and the farmyard beasts about her, as she fed the hens from the wooden piggin under her arm, was Morland’s own. The village street might be Miss Mitford’s, the well-to-do house Jane Austen’s own fancy, in its warm brick and comfortable decorum. She laughed a little as she thought it. “That is American,” she said, “the habit of comparing every stick and stone and breathing thing to some literary parallel.”

Arriving at Stornham Court, she finds her sister a poor nervous diminished thing, terrified of her husband, even though he is away. The House have been allowed to rot and sink into ruin. Rosalie’s money has been wasted by Sir Nigel on gambling and debauchery. He is currently away on the continent with a Spanish woman called Carmencita.

Rosalie has been left alone with her son, Ughtred, who was born crippled because of the time that Sir Nigel hit Rosalie when she was pregnant. The house does not completely belong to Sir Nigel, however; it is entailed to Ughtred, so he is wasting his son’s inheritance. Bettina, with American verve and a millionaire’s resources, determines to do something about this. She begins renovating the house and estate, and deliberately makes sure that the work is given to the local villagers who are tenants of the state, and so helps restore what had been a very run-down village. Her beauty and kindness make her a local heroine.

Bettina feels that in England she has ‘been swept back into the Middle Ages.’ The system is feudal, but is not working well. The English aristocracy had been strong and noble, but now Sir Nigel seems almost typical:

“”It’s a disgusting thing,” she said to herself, “to think of the corrupt weaklings the strong ones dwindled down to. I hate them. So does he.” There had been many such of late years, she knew. She had seen them in Paris, in Rome, even in New York. Things with thin or over-thick bodies and receding chins and foreheads; things haunting places of amusement and finding inordinate entertainment in strange jokes and horseplay.”

The peasantry, on the other hand, are ‘an unexpecting people’, and absurdly docile. She reflects:

Only centuries of waiting for their superiors in rank to do things for them, and the slow formation of the habit of realising that not to submit to disappointment was no use, could have produced the almost SERENITY of their attitude.

This is contrasted with the go-getting attitude of Americans, exemplified by G. Selden, a typewriter salesman whose advent livens up the neighbourhood and agreeably advances the plot.

Soon Bettina discovers that the second-class passenger on the liner is actually her neighbour. From his rough costume she takes him for a gamekeeper, but he is Lord Mount Dunstan, lord of the manor. He is impoverished because his father and elder brother have wasted and ruined the estate, but he is very unlike his degenerate relatives. He had gone to America in the hope of making money by sheep-farming, but had been a failure, Now he is back home, doing what he can with his ruined estate.

Bettina and Mount Dunstan are immediately attracted, but she scorns American women who let themselves be used by impoverished aristocrats, while he says:

“You know what I feel about Englishmen who brand themselves as half men and marked merchandise by selling themselves and their houses and their blood to foreign women.”

Because they are respectively the best of American and the best of British, each is too proud to hint at their attraction to the other, and there are a lot of vicissitudes and crises before they finally get together, as the reader knows they must.

The novel was becoming a bit bland, with Bettina doing good works and being adored by the villagers, when things liven up because the vile Sir Nigel returns home. He can hardly complain at the restoration of his estate, but he works at insidious ways of getting his revenge on Betty for humiliating him. Things become complicated when he, like everyone else, becomes irresistably attracted to her beauty.

The book is melodramatic, and knows it. Here is Bettina talking to Sir Nigel about one of his revolting propositions:

“”Do you know,” she inquired, “that you are talking to me as though you were the villain in the melodrama?” “There is an advantage in that,” he answered, with an unholy smile. “If you repeat what I say, people will only think that you are indulging in hysterical exaggeration. They don’t believe in the existence of melodrama in these days.””

I suspect that even in 1907 this book felt old-fashioned – maybe reassuringly so. Its values are Dickensian, with the stress on decency, hard work and kindness as the solution to life’s problems. One is also reminded of Dickens by the charity of the millionaire, by the cripples]d child and the typhoid epidemic that provides the crisis of the later chapters.

When Bettina goes to see Sir Nigel’s lawyers, she impresses them by her clear-headed efficiency, but the final effect is that Mr. Townlinson ‘felt somewhat like an elderly solicitor who had found himself drawn into the atmosphere of a sort of intensely modern fairy tale.’

A fairy-tale it is, with an eventual happy ending that is almost a miracle. Melodramatic? Yes. Sentimental? Yes, but in a good, Dickensian way. Enjoyable? Hugely. It’s a page-turner that I devoured with joy. Not quite as good as The Secret Garden, maybe, but not too far off.

2 thoughts on “The Shuttle (1907) by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  1. Such a wonderful post. I too thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I have the nice Persephone edition, although I noticed when comparing it with the text at Project Gutenberg that Persephone have made quite a lot of cuts. The part about the ocean journey is quite a lot longer in the full text of the novel.

  2. That’s interesting. I wonder what edition they used as a copy text. A cheap later reprint? Or maybe the American edition is different from the British one.
    Persephone editions are so elegant that one assumes they get this sort of thing right. But maybe they’re like Folio editions – great to look at, but not always textually the best.

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