Classics Club: The Shuttle

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Shuttle (1907)

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were iconic books for me growing up, and I also read and reread Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Lost Prince. So when Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult books began to resurface, some (like this one) gaining the kiss of approval from Persephone, I was delighted.

It’s a long, sometimes unfocused book, and I’m not surprised to learn that Burnett worked on it in fits and starts over several years. During that time her own life was a fitting subject for a melodrama; having divorced her first husband, the 50-year-old married an actor ten years her junior, who apparently was only interested in her money and the advancement of his career. The marriage was in trouble immediately and only lasted two years. In 1907, the year of this book’s publication, she returned permanently from England to her native country, the United States.

During the period of writing Burnett spent time “shuttling” to and from her beloved Great Maytham Hall in Kent, whose walled rose garden was the model for the “secret garden.” Burnett had renovated the neglected garden herself, and wrote several books there. Though her 1911 children’s book is the most famous rendering, one can also see in this earlier novel similar themes of renewal and rebuilding, and of the garden as symbol of the feminine capacity for rebirth and healing.

Here, though, the accompanying manor house takes on even greater importance than the garden, as the rebuilding of a house goes together with the rebuilding of a woman’s life. The woman, Rosalie, is one of the hordes of American heiresses imported to Europe during this era, to bring their fortunes and vital young blood to impoverished ancient houses and lineage. Her husband, unfortunately, is a dastardly fortune-hunter who proceeds to abuse her in the most disgusting possible ways, and then abandon her, their son, and his crumbling house to pursue his own sordid interests. (Mrs. Burnett was perhaps working out some of her own husband issues here.)

He ensures that Rosalie becomes estranged from her loving family so that they can do nothing to help her, but her younger sister, Betty, won’t give her up. When she pursues her sister a decade later, she proceeds to expend her own fortune, and more importantly, her immense vitality, ingenuity, and compassion, to save Rosalie and foil the plans of her evil mate. In the process she meets her own perfect mate, a neighboring nobleman whose fortune has been lost by spendthrift ancestors, but who refuses to resort to such low tactics to restore it as marrying an heiress. Will Betty be able to overcome his resistance, and forge her own happiness?

The heroine and the villain are too perfectly good and evil for true artistic merit, but there’s a great deal of pleasure to be found in this modern fairy tale. As Betty showers her life force everywhere, we can also feel rejuvenated and inspired to look at parts of our life that might just need a little courage and gumption to get them moving in the right direction. And as America a century later seems to be descending ever further into the pit of selfishness, greed, and nationalistic paranoia, we can try to recover a different ideal: one of generosity and compassionate action.

It’s also notable that Betty is a shining archetype of the “new woman,” whose spirited self-determination would have been considered beyond the pale by many in 1907. She reminded me of the women in Herland, published around the same time. But while they developed their strength and intellect by virtue of living in a world without men, Betty grows by means of a sympathetic man (her father) to unfold the true power latent in the feminine, and comes into active relationship to both masculine strength and masculine weakness. This gives the story a different dimension than Gilman’s single-minded utopia.

Much as I enjoy her books, though, I have to admit that Burnett is not a truly great writer. Her style is often hackneyed, her characters stereotypical, and some of her sentiments cringe-worthy. (I could particularly have done without a subplot concerning a gung-ho young typewriter salesman.) But she had certainly had some ideas that powerfully tap into our collective unconscious, and out of this source created some memorable books. This is one that I felt could have been better, but was still worth reading. Whenever I think life is too difficult or depressing, I’ll just think of Betty, and strive to put my own feminine ingenuity to work.

Classics Club List #22


12 thoughts on “Classics Club: The Shuttle

    1. Excellent review, Lory! This is also on my Classics Club list, and I look froward to reading it soon, although I’m not expecting great literature. Betty sounds like a delightful feminist character though!


      1. Karen, I think The Secret Garden is a must-read. Still enjoyable as an adult.

        Jessie, it’s not great literature, but it’s really a lot of fun and thought-provoking at times too. Betty is a great character.


    2. I’m just going to chime in here and say I did not read The Secret Garden until a few years ago. And while I don’t have any idea how I would have reacted to it as a young person, I enjoyed it immensely as an adult. It’s really a beautifully written book!


  1. I understand what you mean about Burnett’s writing. In The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, she’s created enduring stories and two of my favorite characters… and yet her writing isn’t perfect. Somehow the feelings she invokes are much more important than the writing itself.


    1. Indeed, she tapped into some powerful emotional patterns I think. And her writing is not terrible, sometimes it’s quite good — but uneven. Her need to write in haste to support herself played into it, I believe. An eternal dilemma for authors.


  2. I’ve read The Making of a Marchioness by Burnett which is also an entertaining but slightly uneven fairy tale for grown-ups. Good to know that The Shuttle is also along those lines if I ever pick it up. I do love The Secret Garden, however. The magic of reading it as a child is still with me when I re-read it as an adult.


  3. Burnett’s grown-up books are — gosh, they are a weird mixed bag. Sometimes she seems almost progressive for her time, and at other times she’s so astonishingly regressive. Her thing with astral projection is weird as hell (although I guess I can’t blame that on her adult books, because I think it happens in Secret Garden too). I definitely prefer her kids’ books.


  4. I certainly agree with you that Burnett is not really a great writer. I like her, and I enjoyed the Shuttle (I didn’t know that about her husband issues, that explains a lot!) but she is frequently hackneyed and far too prone to write ‘sentimental drivel.’


    1. This one makes me want to reread her biography, Waiting for the Party. I did read it long ago but I want some background on this particular book now.


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