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.
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?