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.