The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you pop by Novel Insights occasionally, you might notice that I updated my header today. I was inspired to do this for three different reasons. Of course the first reason is that I wanted something new for 2010. The other two reasons are to do with my latest favourite novel – The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The grey tone is inspired by Persephone books, which are beloved by bibliophiles for the simple grey exterior and beautiful end-papers. and the image in the header is of Scheherazade telling her tales, because the thing that struck me when I read this beauty of a book is what an absolutely wonderful storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett was.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although, I had read The Secret Garden as a child and adored it, I didn’t realise that Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) was a prolific and in fact a very succesful writer. I don’t love introductions to novels as a rule, however I found Anne Seba’s foreword in the Persephone edition to be just the right amount of information and enlightening. I was left with the impression that she was an interesting, and strong woman, and I felt that this understanding meant that I was more aware when reading The Shuttle of her distinctive voice and led me to wonder how her own experiences might have impacted her very vivid characters.

If I had simply read the synopsis printed on the book (something about ships, international marriages and English drawing rooms) I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it came so highly recommended through Savidge Reads and Paperback Reader that I snapped it up when I saw it in the library.

In brief summary, it is the story of the weaving together of English society with American at the dawn of the new century. Glamorous American millionairesses marry debt-ridden landed gentry in tumbledown English country homes for better or for worse. Hardships are endured, but wonderful characters endure also!

The plot of the novel revolves around the marriage of Englishman Nigel Anstruthers, (a decidedly shifty character with a title but no money) to the sweet and simple American heiress Rosalie (Rosie) Vanderpoel. We are party to the dynamics of their marriage at the outset and then we skip a few years to when Rosie’s sister and heroine of the novel Bettina (Betty) comes to visit the Stornham estate. I was actually slightly over-excited at the name, as my Dutch Grandmother’s maiden name is Van de Poll and random fact – this is actually the reason that my name is Polly as it was her nick-name as a young woman. Vanderpoel is a version of the same name so there you go!

Anyway… even more exciting was the beautiful writing, characters and fabulous plot line. Betty Vanderpoel is a wonderful character and I felt as if Burnett had really poured her soul into creating her. In fact she almost wrote of her as a proud mother might. I loved this description of her:

“Her hair was soft and black and repeated its colour in the extravagant lashes of her childhood, which made mysterious the changeful dense blue of her eyes. They were eyes with laughter in them and pride, and a suggestion of many deep things yet unstirred. She was rather unusually tall, and her body had the suppleness of a young bamboo. The deep corners of her red mouth curled generously, and the chin, melting into the fine line of the lovely throat, was at once strong and soft and lovely. She was a creature of harmony, warm richness of colour, and brilliantly alluring life.”

And she is not only beautiful but strong, intelligent and wilful and with her family’s wealth, she wields power too. Nigel Anstruthers is the most fascinatingly vile character you could conceive, Rosalie is sweet and to be pitied, her son Ugtred is old before his years and always by her side.

Burnett introduced me to a fascinating piece of social history I never knew about, and conjured the feeling of the time vividly. There was an exploration of the relationships of husbands and wives at the time, which seemed to me to be quite bold in its criticism. The plot manages to combine social history with romance and gets seriously dark in parts. It is also funny! I laughed out loud a couple of times at G Selden’s character. Was it gripping? I read the nearly 500 pages in nearly two days – so take from that what you will.

I will definitely look out for more of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writings and other Persephones to see what other forgotten treasures there are out there (I am quite enjoying finding less well-known books by famous authors at the moment such as The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne). I think I will have to go on a pilgrimage to the Persephone bookshop in the not too distant future.

Have you read any Persephone books or can you recommend forgotten gems?

19 responses to “The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  1. Great review. I feel bad for these terrific authors whose more mature writing have been overshadowed by their writing for children. However, I’ll have to admit I’ve never read any Burnett before.

    I’m dying to get to the UK so I can go poke my nose into Persephone. The Brit book blogosphere have been raving about their books and designs!

    • Oh I think you’d love it – I sort of expected it to be heavy and a bit serious but it was a wonderful story. I wandered into Persephone and out one day when I used to work close by and didn’t really understand what it was all about. I just saw lots of pretty covers by people I’d mostly not heard of! Now I understand what the fuss is all about. I’m going to have to go on another visit soon.

  2. What lovely inspiration for your new header. I like it – very elegant.

    The Shuttle sounds wonderful. I just picked up a new Persephone today (well from the library) – They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. I’m hoping to curl up with it next weekend 0:)

    • Thank you! The Shuttle really is wonderful. I would like to read some more Persephone Classics now and have heard good things about Dorothy Whipple on Book Snob’s blog.

  3. I read this post and then marked it us unread to come back and comment but then forgot (well, not exactly forgot but it was unread along with another 1000+ posts in my Google Reader).

    Anyway, I’m so glad that you were as gripped by this as I was! It is a remarkable piece of social history – to think that one of those American wives to come to England was the mother of Winston Churchill.

    Did you know that Persephone published another Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, The Making of a Marchioness?

    • I’ve heard of The Making of a Marchioness, and would love to read it in the future. I was very impressed by Hodgson Burnett’s writing for adults – how wonderful. And you’re right about how the social history is so interesting. I thought that the intro to the Persephone copy was great.

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  12. I am half way through The Shuttle and completely gripped and admiring. Her descriptions of the differences between the English and Americans are still very relevant and the insights are fascinating and perceptive. The characters are compelling and the story sweeps you along.

    I just reread The Secret Garden and was amazed at how well written it was. It is almost flawless, except for the first half of the last chapter, which is touching but not up to the level of the rest. The chapter where “delight reigns” is a complete literary tour de force. As a child, I read Racketty Packetty House which is wonderful and was a delight to reread as an adult. It is unjustly forgotten.

    To get those that Persephone has not published, Gutenberg has done more than 30 of Burnett’s works as etexts. I highly recommend The Shuttle.

    • Hi Ruellia, I’m a big fan of Gutenberg and have the Eucalyptus app so will definitely look out for other Burnett books on that.

  13. Here are the 35 which Gutenberg has:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/b#a73

    The Dawn of a To-morrow (English)
    Emily Fox-Seton being “The Making of a Marchioness” and “The Methods of Lady Walderhurst” (English)
    Esmeralda (English)
    A Fair Barbarian (English)
    The Head of the House of Coombe (English)
    His Grace of Osmonde
    In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim (English)
    In the Closed Room (English)
    A Lady of Quality (English)
    The Land of the Blue Flower (English)
    The Little Hunchback Zia (English)
    Little Lord Fauntleroy (English)
    A Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time (English)
    Little Saint Elizabeth and Other Stories (English)
    Lodusky (English)
    The Lost Prince (English)
    Mère Giraud’s Little Daughter (English)
    “Le Monsieur de la Petite Dame” (English)
    My Robin (English)
    One Day At Arle (English)
    The Pretty Sister Of José 1889 (English)
    Racketty-Packetty House (English)
    Robin (English)
    Sara Crewe: or, What happened at Miss Minchin’s boarding school (English)
    The Secret Garden (English)
    “Seth” (English)
    The Shuttle (English)
    “Surly Tim”
    A Lancashire Story (English)
    That Lass O’ Lowrie’s 1877 (English)
    Theo A Sprightly Love Story [1875?] (English)
    T. Tembarom (English)
    Vagabondia1884 (English)
    The White People (English)

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