Thursday, March 29, 2007

Burnett's The Shuttle

[just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: The Shuttle

Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett

Copyright: 1907 (this work is in the public domain); I read from an older edition published by Grosset & Dunlap. A full text version is available from Project Gutenberg, but a print edition is being launched by Persephone Books in the UK in April 2007.

Genre: Fiction/Romance

Length: 512 pages

Summary: Following her marriage to Nigel Anstruthers and the subsequent relocation to his estate in England, the naively sweet and loving Rosalie Vanderpoel, now Lady Anstruthers, gradually loses touch with her family. After some twelve years of increasing silence and detachment, her younger sister, Betty Vanderpoel travels to England to learn the reason. Betty, operating from a fine sense of practicality and confidence, is shocked by the changes in her sister when she arrives at Stornham Court. The Shuttle centers around the actions that Betty takes to restore her sister to herself and set things right. There is a meeting with a neighboring nobleman, Mount Dunstan, who lacks money to restore his own estate but whose pride prevents him from sinking to the behaviors of Nigel Anstruthers' ilk. Ultimately, of course, we see Betty and Mount Dunstan fall in love but the romance is not the paramount story here. Burnett was making a point about the marital alliances between American heiresses and the British titled aristocracy. A theme of restoration runs throughout the novel, based on the respective strengths of each country and culture and it makes for a most satisfying read.

Burnett's writing style is certainly in keeping with the style of her time. This is from a period where it was understood that one had the leisure to properly immerse oneself in the written word. The excerpt below is taken from Mount Dunstan's view of the gap between the two cultures; he is seated in something approximating the "cheap seats" when he catches sight of Betty in one of the expensive boxes above him. This is how Burnett reveals her theme.

Extract: The necessity of seeing his solicitors, who happened to be Messrs. Townlinson & Sheppard, had brought Lord Mount Dunstan to town. After a day devoted to business affairs, he had been attracted by the idea of going to the theatre to see again a play he had already seen in New York. It would interest him to observe its exact effect upon a London audience. While he had been in New York, he had gone with something of the same feeling to see a great English actor play to a crowded house. The great actor had been one who had returned to the country for a third or fourth time, and, in the enthusiasm he had felt in the atmosphere about him, Mount Dunstan had seen not only pleasure and appreciation of the man's perfect art, but - at certain tumultuous outbursts - an almost emotional welcome. The Americans, he had said to himself, were creatures of warmer blood than the English. The audience on that occasion had been, in mass, American. The audience he made one of now, was made up of both nationalities, and, in glancing over it, he realised how large was the number of Americans who came yearly to London. As Lady Anstruthers had done, he found himself selecting from the assemblage the types which were manifestly American, and those obviously English. In the seat next to himself sat a man of a type he felt he had learned by heart in the days of his life as Jem Salter. At a short distance fluttered brilliantly an English professional beauty, with her male and female court about her. In the stage box, made sumptuous with flowers, was a royal party.

As this party had entered, "God save the Queen" had been played, and, in rising with the audience during the entry, he had recalled that the tune was identical with that of an American national air. How unconsciously inseparable - in spite of the lightness with which they regarded the curious tie between them - the two countries were. The people upon the stage were acting as if they knew their public, their bearing suggesting no sense of any barrier beyond the footlights. It was the unconsciousness and lightness of the mutual attitude which had struck him of late. Punch had long jested about "Fair Americans," who, in their first introduction to its pages, used exotic and cryptic language, beginning every sentence either with "I guess," or "Say, Stranger"; its male American had been of the Uncle Sam order and had invariably worn a "goatee." American witticisms had represented the Englishman in plaid trousers, opening his remarks with "Chawley, deah fellah," and unfailingly missing the point of any joke. Each country had cherished its type and good-naturedly derided it. In time this had modified itself and the joke had changed in kind. Many other things had changed, but the lightness of treatment still remained. And yet their blood was mingling itself with that of England's noblest and oldest of name, their wealth was making solid again towers and halls which had threatened to crumble. Ancient family jewels glittered on slender, young American necks, and above - sometimes somewhat careless - young American brows. And yet, so far, one was casual in one's thought of it all, still. On his own part he was obstinate Briton enough to rebel against and resent it. They were intruders. He resented them as he had resented in his boyhood the historical fact that, after all, an Englishman was a German - a savage who, five hundred years after the birth of Christ, had swooped upon Early Briton from his Engleland and Jutland, and ravaging with fire and sword, had conquered and made the land his possession, ravishing its very name from it and giving it his own. These people did not come with fire and sword, but with cable and telephone, and bribes of gold and fair women, but they were encroaching like the sea, which, in certain parts of the coast, gained a few inches or so each year.

Also Relevant: There are many reasons why Persephone may see the value in bringing this novel back to the attention of the modern public. There is the story of the abused wife, the culture gap with its tensions, there is a remarkably self-sufficient heroine who "gets things done" effectively as well as graciously. Burnett was in fact a successful writer for adults as well as for children and Persephone's list is largely oriented to the work of women writers whose works are neglected or in danger of being marginalized. How better to marginalize a woman writer than by dismissing her as a writer for children, a field that may be casually perceived as being of lesser status than adult fiction? One might legitimately raise the complaint that Betty is a little too perfect to be borne with; a flaw to her overall make-up might have been welcome. But by and large, this book entertains as well as makes a point. Readers of today may find it to be as worthwhile now as when it was initially published one hundred years ago.

Elaine of Random Jottings had this to say about The Shuttle earlier this month.