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.
Posted by Velvet Empire at 11:40 am