Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"The Shuttle" - Frances Hodgson Burnett

A few days in Somerset last week gave me ample time to speed through the 500-page 1097 novel "The Shuttle" by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published by Persephone with - quite possibly - the nicest Turnbull And Stockdale end-papers I have yet seen in one of their books.

Burnett's "The Making Of A Marchioness" has long been one of my favourite Persephone reprints, and it retreads her familiar path of a down-on-her-luck good soul who suffers at the hands of others before falling into the life she so deserves. And "The Shuttle" is essentially no different – and that's not a complaint. The novel (unfortunately abridged from 700 to 500 pages, which is a huge shame: there is never any need to abridge any book) covers the late 1890s/early 1900s trend for impoverished English aristocrats (who are left with a dilapidated mansion and no funds to maintain it), who shuttle across to New York to marry wealthy heiresses and shuttle them back to England to siphon off their wealth. (A very famous example is Jennie Jerome, who became Winston Churchill's mother.) However, these marriages were often loveless and a disaster, and this is what "The Shuttle" highlights.

Gentle and sweet Rosy is the daughter of multi-millionaire Reuben S Vanderpoel, and thinks it a romantic dream when English aristo Sir Nigel Anstruthers appears and makes her his wife. But the second she steps off American soil onto the boat shuttling her back to England, all her dreams turn to tatters as Sir Nigel turns into a thoroughly wicked rogue who has no interest in Rosy other than manipulating her into signing over her inheritance to him. A catalogue of misfortune spills out, before Rosy's little sister Betty comes of age and finally comes to England in search of her long-forgotten sister and finding out what went wrong... all with the compelling, well-written and touching style you would expect from Burnett.

But I'm aware I've just summed "The Shuttle" up in a way that makes it sound like little more than a dated Barbara Cartland romance. And that's a huge injustice. Because the book also typifies the horrors of these long-forgotten alliances between the new and the old countries. And this, to me, is the beauty of the Persephone reprints: that they allow us to recapture the genuine social situation of the time. Rather than historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier or Sarah Waters researching the past to write about it, Persephone writers actually did live through the times they write about, making the researchers a poor second best.

Coincidentally, the American Museum near Bath is hosting the Dollar Princesses exhibition until October 28, which celebrates exactly these unions. The museum was co-founded by Dallas Pratt, who was the son of a Dollar Princess. Mrs M and I went to see the exhibition last week and it was fascinating. Well worth a look.

1 comment:

DesertIslandBookworm said...

Link you gave to "Dollar Princess" exhibit seems to have expired, unfortunately :-( Do you recall if it included any prints by Charles Dana Gibson, who illustrated both the humor and tragedy of marriages between rich Yankees & European with a title but not much material wealth?

I recall one of a girl dining in state with elderly husband asleep while she dreams of young man & children she might have had.

More comical were series of adventures,"Mr Pip goes Abroad" (if I recall title rightly) with two lovely daughters whose pursuit by handsome titled men--which their funny little "Pa" is oblivious to until final "chapter"!

Sisters Rose & Betty of THE SHUTTLE seem to illustrate two types of Victorian women: the older is weak, passive early Vic stereotype; the younger is athletic, decisive, intelligent "New Woman" of turn of the century seen in the famous "Gibson Girls" prints.

Book "Girl On The Magazine Cover" is scholarly, yet readable study of how life and art of those eras influenced the changing images of female aspirations & realities.

I own 1907 edition of THE SHUTTLE which has 512 pages & makes no mention of being abridged. Perhaps like my two editions of TOM BROWN AT OXFORD, one ed is in much smaller print, so fewer pages?

There are lots of online sources for THE SHUTTLE if anyone would like to compare to see if anything was cut...

BTW, I see SHUTTLE as an adult version of Burnett's SECRET GARDEN, which also got inspiration from author's real-life project of restoring an old British estate.